The Land of the Rising Sun is all about their festivities. I’m not even exaggerating; there’s at least a few festivals or events happening every month of the year! The locals take some time off their busy schedules each time to celebrate these matsuri (祭り), the Japanese word for “festival”; even the schedule-packed salaryman who spends day-in and day-out in the office.
With so many celebrations going on throughout the year, it brings about the question: which one is the ultimate one? Out of all of them, there’s bound to be one that holds the most significance, even if it is just by a fine margin.
True enough, there is one in the mix of matsuri that holds the title of the #1 annual event. No one in the country misses it for anything in the world. What is it, you ask? Read on to find out!
Events and Festivals in Japan
Did you know: there are more than 300,000 matsuri in Japan alone! You will never run out of entertainment and activities to do in the country. They come in all forms — everything from dance performances to traditional arts competitions, Japanese festivals covered them all!
These traditional festivals can vary depending on the area that they are being held in. You’ll get the Yosakoi Matsuri — a traditional dancing competition festival — in Kochi Prefecture and Yuki Matsuri — a regional snow festival — in the Hokkaido Prefecture.
What’s more, the matsuri costumes can be completely different from other areas depending on where it is being held. It’s like a representation of the region that they are from. If a matsuri is sponsored by a local shrine or temple and is organised by the local community, chances are there will be a group of people in local costumes carrying a mikoshi (神輿) — a sacred portable Shinto shrine that is believed to serve as transportation for a deity during a festival or when moving to a new shrine. The people also believe that this addition to the festival will bless the town and the people in it during the celebration.
The #1 Annual Event in Japan Is… Shogatsu (New Year)
You didn’t have to wait long for the big reveal, did you? Without a doubt, the #1 annual event in all of Japan is definitely Shogatsu (正月), which translates to the Japanese New Year. This annual festival is celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar, which means the Japanese new year falls on the same day as New Year’s Day — the first of January. This special time of the year is where families get together and spend quality time with each other, friends gather and have the time of their lives and the final memories for the year are made.
This significant celebration in Japan is nothing like the rest of the world, though; while the West focuses on welcoming the start of the new year and (maybe) short-lived resolutions, the Shogatsu is far more serious. The event doesn’t start just the day before and ends when the year adds on another digit — Shogatsu begins days before the end of the year and continues a few days after. There is also a strong emphasis on prosperity and blessing in the upcoming year.
Just like every other aspect of the country, the Japanese have their own unique traditions when it comes to the Shogatsu. That’s what makes Japan, well, Japan. The list of Shogatsu traditions can go on and on, but there are a couple of them that are more prominent than others.
For example, at the stroke of midnight, Buddhist temples all around the country ring their bells 108 times — this number is believed to be the estimated number of worldly sins and desires. On top of that, an abundance of traditional foods — particularly soba as a symbol of good health — are prepared to be feasted on and children are given money. The Emperor of Japan will also begin the New Year with a dawn prayer for the nation.
The day after New Year’s, on the 2nd of January, the public is allowed access to the inner palace grounds in Tokyo. This is a rare treat that is only granted twice a year; the only other day is on the Emperor’s Birthday celebration on the 23rd of December.
The Japanese celebrate Shogatsu very seriously — most businesses remain closed until at least the 3rd of January.
A couple of days later, on the 9th of January, is the Coming of Age Day celebration. Some do consider this as part of the Shogatsu celebration — very subjective, I believe.
Other Big Annual Events In Japan
Shogatsu definitely takes the #1 spot easily, but there are also a few other major events in Japan that are celebrated just as seriously. In the mix of over 300,000 matsuri, a few of the other ones stand out.
Curious as to what they are? Let’s take a look at what they are!
Oh, the great Golden Week (ゴールデンウィーク). If I have to be honest, this is an event I look forward to every year! For about a week from the end of April to the 6th of May, Japan has four of the most important festivals taking place back to back! It starts off with Emperor Hirohito’s birthday on the 29th of April, then the Constitution Memorial Day on the 3rd of May, Greenery Day on the 4th of May and finally Children’s Day on the 5th of May — this whole stretch is known as the Golden Week!
There’s nothing busier than this week in Japan — the tourism industry booms every year during this time as people plan big vacations domestically as well as abroad. Hotels, flights, transport and attractions will be booked up and packed; prices are through the roof!
You may also find that some of the local businesses closed during this week as the locals take time off to visit their family in a different prefecture or also travel for leisure themselves as well!
Another annual event the Japanese strictly observe is Obon (お盆). Although it is technically not an official national holiday, it is a huge celebration that takes place throughout the country. It’s not always the same date each year as it follows the lunar calendar instead as well as varying from region to region — it can be on July 15th, August 15th or the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. One thing’s for sure is that it’s always in the summer.
Obon takes place over the course of three days to celebrate the spirits of the ancestors that return home to rest. There will be fires and lanterns that are lit in front of homes to guide the spirits on their journey. Many of the locals head back to their ancestral homes for this event.
This old traditional matsuri is a fun one — Setsubun (節分) kicks off the Haru Matsuri (春祭り) in Japan, around the 3rd or 4th February, and is basically a bean-throwing festival. It initially was intended to drive off evil spirits but now evolved into televised events that are hosted by national celebrities.
Taking place at shrines and temples on small stages all over the country, candy and money are also being thrown into the crowds for the lot of people rushing to catch these small treats. Setsubun can also be celebrated at home, with families throwing beans, in the same manner, to drive evil spirits away; one family member plays the bad guy and wears the demon mask while the others shout “get out!” and throw beans at them till they leave out the door — symbolising that the evil spirit is being slammed shut out the door.
With Shogatsu holding the #1 title and Golden Week, Obon and Setsubun as close runner-ups, Japan is definitely not short of significant annual events — especially when they have over 300,000 of them! Even if you’re planning a trip that’s not during the time of the mentioned ones above, you’re definitely going to be able to be part of at least one traditional matsuri on your trip. What better way to immerse in the local culture than a good ol’ Japanese festival?
The first traditional dish one thinks of when Japan is mentioned is, without a doubt, ramen. It’s the most iconic noodle soup dish in the whole country — it’s so reputable that Japanese ramen restaurants have expanded to countries even on the other side of the globe!
There are four main types of ramen: shio (塩, salt-based), shoyu (醤油, soy sauce-based), miso (soybean paste-flavoured) and tonkotsu (豚骨, pork bone broth). Each of them have their own unique flavours and rich history that can’t be compared to another.
A tourist’s first order of business when in Japan is to devour a bowl of delicious, authentic Japanese ramen from the best ramen shops in the country. Little did they know that the streets of Japan are packed with noodle shops that will make the decision-making process a harder endeavour than one expected it to be.
Luckily for you, you’ve come to the right place — here we review the top 5 ramen spots in Japan’s capital city, Tokyo! Read on to find out what these ramen shops are.
On the first of the list is the famous Michelin star ramen restaurant, Nakiryu. This noodle shop has been awarded a Michelin star for five consecutive years straight — that’s definitely saying something. What’s more, they’re the second Japanese ramen restaurant to earn such a highly-regarded award! That’s not all — the owner of this shop used to work at a famous restaurant in Hong Kong that was also awarded a Michelin star!
With such a high level of popularity, expect to wait for at least two hours during lunchtime on the weekends. Your safest bet is going during the weekdays where there is less of a crowd. Regardless, it’s definitely worth every second’s wait.
The most highly recommended item at Nakiryu is the restaurant’s special shoyu ramen. Simple in terms of visual but rest assured it’s more than what it seems. The ramen bowl is topped with three kinds of chashu (チャーシュ, barbecued pork) made from various parts cooked in different methods. There’s also shrimp wonton, a half-boiled egg and completed with some homemade bamboo shoots. Every single ingredient complements the other perfectly, and ultimately blending seamlessly in your tastebuds!
Nearest Station: JR Otsuka Station, 5-minute walk
Address: 2-34-10, Minamiohtsuka, Toshima-ku, Tokyo 1700005, Japan
Opening Hours: 11:30-15:00, 18:00-21:00 (On Mondays, 11:30-15:00)
Telephone Number: +81 03-6304-1811
2. Ginza Kagari Honten
Looking for the creamiest and richest ramen in all of Tokyo? Ginza Kagari Honten is the place you should head to! It was mentioned in the Michelin guide a few years ago as a Bib Gourmand and has gained popularity dramatically ever since. Just like the neighbourhood it’s in, this ramen restaurant is refined and pristine, complete with beautiful presentations of food and well-thought-out interior design.
Ginza Kagari Honten offers quite a few variations of noodle dishes. For first-timers, the special ramen is your best choice. During your following visits, try their famous chicken bone soup called the tori paitan — it’s definitely one dish that will have a special place in your heart (or belly).
Be prepared to queue for at least an hour; Ginza Kagari Honten is pretty highly regarded. Weekdays are probably best to avoid the huge crowd.
Nearest Station: Ginza Station
Address: 6 Chome-4-12 Ginza, Chuo City, Tokyo 104-0061
Opening Hours: 11:00-15:00, 17:30-22:00
Venture out of central Tokyo, away from the hustles and bustles of the city, for a delicious bowl of ramen at Ushio. The neighbourhood this ramen restaurant offers oasis amidst the eccentric ambiance of Japan’s capital city. It does get rather busy during lunchtime, but other than that you won’t really have to wait so long for a seat.
The highly recommended dish is the Nihon-ichi shoyu soba ramen. The soup is made from aged unpasteurized soy sauce, enhanced with high-grade kelp from Hokkaido. The combination makes it one of the best soups in all of Tokyo, full of umami richness. The standard toppings are there, but there are also the additional smoked duck meat slices that give the ramen dish a unique factor.
Don’t think it’s too far out — take the chance of going to Ushio to explore the quiet side of Tokyo.
Nearest Station: Awajicho Station, 1-minute walk
Address: 2-4-4 Kandaawaji-cho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 1010063, Japan
Opening Hour: 11:00-19:00
Telephone Number: +81 03-6206-9322
4. Menya Musashi
If you want a conveniently located ramen shop that’s a step up above the rest, Menya Musashi is the ramen restaurant you’re looking for. They have about 10 chain stores all around Tokyo metropolitan areas itself including the busy Shinjuku. Even with a few shops all around the country, every single one of them is always seen with a queue coming out of them during peak hours — their ramen dishes are that good.
The ramen at Menya Musashi is made with the perfect blend of chicken, pork and fish broth. Try the signature ramen bowl, complete with chunky chashu slices and half-boiled eggs. Take a step up and opt for the tsukemen dipping noodles that provides a different but unique ramen experience.
They’re extremely affordable as well, so what are you waiting for?
Nearest Station: Seibu-Shinjuku Station, 1-minute walk
Address: 〒160-0023 Tokyo, Shinjuku City, Nishishinjuku, 7 Chome−2−6 西新宿Ｋ－１ビル 1F
Opening Hours: 11:00-22:30
Telephone Number: +81 03-3363-4634
5. Toripaitan Kageyama
Just a four-minute walk from the nearest station, this ramen restaurant is a hidden gem. Locals near and far travel here especially for Toipaitan Kageyama’s amazing ramen dishes. Their specialty is no doubt tori paitan — a kind of ramen dish made of white, thick soup with chicken. The one at this ramen restaurant is a perfect balance of richness and refreshing.
Managed by the high-class Chinese restaurant, Kageyamaro, with the cook formerly the chef of that restaurant as well, there’s no doubt this shop provides only high-quality dishes. Noodles are by Tokyo’s famous noodle makers called Asakusa Kaikaro — what other highly reputable sources can one ramen shop have?
Toripaitan Kageyama’s ramen dishes have lemon served alongside them. It might be a little strange to have a citrusy taste in ramen, but trust me, you won’t regret it. I recommend eating half the soup without the lemon first and then adding it after — this way, you’ll get the best of both worlds!
Nearest Station: Takadanobaba Station, 4-minute walk
Address: 1 Chome-4-18 Takadanobaba, Shinjuku City, Tokyo 169-0075
Opening Hours: 11:00-23:00
Telephone Number: +81 03-6457-3160
With this carefully curated list of best ramen spots in Tokyo — all of them at different areas in the city — you’re not going to be out of options while you’re out on your adventures. Each with their own specialty, one cannot be compared to the other. So the best way to know which one’s best for you is to try them all! How about it — go on a ramen-hopping adventure when you’re in Japan!
Going to restaurants and ordering food are essential activities in our daily lives, regardless of which country we are in. Especially in a country where the native language isn’t English, it can prove to be rather difficult to get your foodie desires across to the waiter.
In Japan, the first language of the country is Japanese. Even though the locals are taught English in school, don’t count on them being anywhere near fluent; they’re more on the level of easy and basic words. Going to a Japanese restaurant with little to no idea on how to communicate your order in their native language can be an issue.
To make your Japanese restaurant visit a more seamless experience, why not learn a few easy phrases? It’s a great step to immerse yourself in the culture during your Japan trip. For those looking to or are already learning Japanese, they’re perfect to get the language learning ball rolling.
What are you waiting for — read on for 10 easy phrases you need to know when you visit a Japanese restaurant!
1. Sumimasen (すみません)
One of the first few things you will need to do when in a restaurant is getting the waiter’s attention so he can make his way to your table and take your order. What do you say during that situation in a Japanese restaurant? The Japanese equivalent of “excuse me” is sumimasen (すみません).
Just like how you would raise your hand up in the air and call out to your waiter, instead of saying “excuse me”, try saying “sumimasen” instead. This word is extremely versatile — it can be used in numerous situations, just like English’s “excuse me”.
Other than to get your waiter’s attention, you can also use it when you need to get across a bunch of people to go somewhere or even when you accidentally bump shoulders with someone. Basically any situation where you can use “excuse me”, you can use “sumimasen”.
2. Kore kudasai (これください)
You’ve decided what you want to order. You’ve got the waiter’s attention. Now all you need to do is to order from the menu. What do you say in that situation? Easy enough — just point at the item you want and say “kore kudasai” (これください) which translates to “this, please”.
If you’re looking to order more than one item, just add “to” (と) in between each item, or “kore” (これ) in this situation. For example, if you have three items, point at each one and say “kore to kore to kore kudasai” (これとこれとこれください).
You can even say it like how you would in English — by pausing at the commas; so it would be “kore, kore to kore kudasai” (これ、これとこれください). Isn’t that as simple as ABC?
3. … wa arimasuka? (。。はありますか？)
Want something but you don’t see it on the menu? Ask the waiter if they offer it at the restaurant you’re dining at. How, you ask? Well, simply add the item name before “wa arimasuka” (はありますか) to ask “Do you have …?”
For example, you’re craving for coca-cola but the drinks menu only has juices and cocktails. Ask the waiter, “koka kora wa arimasuka?” (コカコラはありますか？) He’ll either respond yes or no, and you’ll be able to figure it out based on the body gestures. For reference, yes is “hai” (はい) and no is “iie” (いいえ).
A bonus tip: if the waiter says that they do have the item you enquire about and you would like to order it, respond with “jaa, koka kora onegaushimasu” (じゃあ、コカコラお願いします) to order your refreshing glass of fizzy sweet drink.
4. Tennai de (店内で)
Some might argue that you won’t need this phrase, but I personally have been in quite a few situations where I have to use this. Especially for cafes and bistros — not so much dine in-only restaurants — the staff that greets you at the door would ask if you’re eating in or getting takeout.
To dine in, use the phrase “tennai de (店内で) which literally translates to “in store”. This means that you’re going to be in the store while you savour the food you’re ordering. Another way of saying it — a less common way but still understandable — is “koko de tabemasu” (ここで食べます) which means “I’ll be eating here”.
Of course, if you’re taking out, you can just say the Japanese way of pronouncing “take out” which is “teku outo” (テークアウト).
5. Dorinku wa tabemono no ato de kudasai (ドリンクは食べ物の後でください)
In Japan, you’ll always be given a choice of getting your drink served before your main meal or after. The staff will more often than not ask for your preference. Usually, drinks are served after so that you’ll be able to enjoy them freshly made instead of it being diluted (if you ordered iced) or cold (if you ordered a hot drink).
To request to have your drink served after the main dish, just say to the waiter “dorinku wa tabemono no ato de kudasai” (ドリンクは食べ物の後でください). This roughly translates to “serve the drink after the meal, please”.
If you would prefer to have the drink before your main dish, switch the “ato” (後) out with “saki” (先).
6. Omizu kudasai (お水ください)
In Japan, you will always be served with complimentary water. I personally love this aspect of customer service. What’s more, you’ll get free refills! Most of the time, the waiter that goes around checking on the guests are the ones refilling the cups of water automatically when they see any empty, but there’s also a chance of them missing yours out.
In that case, call out to the water and say “omizu kudasai” (お水ください) which translates to “water, please”. You can also use this phrase when the restaurant doesn’t automatically serve water to you at the start. Don’t worry, they’re almost always complimentary, even if it’s not served at the start.
7. Osusume wa nandesuka? (オススメはなんですか？)
If you’re like me, you’ll always want to order the chef’s recommendation menu item or the most popular one — especially if it’s at a restaurant I haven’t been to before. I wouldn’t want to spend on something that’s second-best; I want the best!
Get the waiter’s attention and ask what he would recommend on the menu. To do that, say “osusume wa nandesuka?” (オススメはなんですか？) which means “what are your recommendations?” Don’t be taken aback when the waiter replies in all Japanese — simply gesture him to point at the menu. Most of the time, they will.
8. Okaikei onegaishimasu (お会計お願いします)
After your delicious, hefty meal, you’re satisfied and full — and it’s time to get going to your next adventure in Japan. If the bill isn’t already on your table (the Japanese tend to have a system of billing the customers before they even have a bite), ask for it. Call out to the waiter, “okaikei onegaishimasu” (お会計お願いします) which translates to “bill, please”.
Once you’ve got your bill, there are two ways to pay them: either the waiter comes to you with a bill holder or you’ll be given a slip to hand it to the cashier who’s usually at the entrance of the restaurant. Most of the time, it’s the latter situation.
9. Betsu betsu de haraimasu (別々で払います)
When you’re eating out with a group of friends, splitting the bill can get rather confusing. Who ate what, how is it splitting, tax-calculating, having exact change and payment method — there are so many things to consider. It’s supposed to be a leisurely meal, not a calculating episode.
Don’t worry, Japan has got you covered. Almost all of the restaurants and other eateries have gotten the system of splitting the bill set up. Simply tell the cashier “betsu betsu de haraimasu” (別々で払います) to mean “we’re paying separately”. Then, tell the cashier what menu items are yours and they’ll key in the exact amount, including tax, for you. It’s as easy as that! No hassle about calculation — it’ll all be done for you!
10. Gochisousama deshita (ごちそうさまでした)
You’ve had a wonderful time at the restaurant and enjoyed the delicious meals and the high quality of customer service. You’d want to show your gratitude and appreciation. However, unlike in other countries, Japan has no tipping culture. How does one do it then?
Before you go out the door, turn back and say “gochisousama deshita” (ごちそうさまでした) to whichever staff that is sending you off. This phrase has a few different meanings, but it roughly translates to “thank you for the food”. It’s a common saying after a meal in Japanese culture to show appreciation to the person or place that provided your meal.
And there you have it; you’re on your way to ordering like a pro at any Japanese restaurant! Don’t worry if you don’t remember all the phrases or any helping vocabularies — the pointing technique usually works for most. It does take a while to get used to, but rest assured that by the time you’re ordering food at your tenth restaurant, you’re more than capable. Who knows, you might even know more than what is on this list!
What’s a visit to Japan without the full experience of Japanese street food? It’s the rite of passage to a full immersion of the local culture! Some of these delicious treats have a history that dates back to the 20th century — how insane is that!
The most common place to find a sweet array of Japanese street food is during a festival. Hundreds of food stalls known as yatai (屋台) line to local streets and roadsides, offering anything and everything there is to offer during the season. From kakigori (カキ氷, a dessert consisting of shaved ice with flavoured syrup) in summer to grilled treats in winter, you won’t be satisfied until you’ve tried them all!
Affordable yet high-quality and delicious, what’s not to like about Japanese street food? The list is endless — takoyaki (タコ焼き) and yakiniku (焼肉) are, of course, the title holders for most famous Japanese street foods — but let’s take a look at the 10 most unique ones out there.
1. Taiyaki (鯛焼き)
For those with a sweet tooth, you definitely need to try this; the taiyaki (鯛焼き) is a fish-shaped waffle that is usually filled with flavourings like red bean paste, chocolate or custard. Take your pick based on what you fancy at the moment — or try them all!
Taiyaki are made in specially-manufactured molds shaped like fish. The exterior is crispy and made from a simple batter mix of flour, baking soda, sugar and salt — complementing perfectly with the smooth, soft interior filling.
This sweet Japanese street food is more common in Tokyo, but you’ll definitely see some yatai in other tourist attraction cities selling them. There’s a huge discussion about the proper way of eating taiyaki — is it heads first or tail? I personally go for the head!
2. Dango (団子)
If you like soft, chewy and sweet, this Japanese street food is made for you. Dango (団子) is a skewer of dumplings made from mochiko (もち粉), a type of rice flour, and often drowned in sweet sugar and shoyu (醤油) sauce.
Dango are served all year round — no season is attached to it. However, you do get seasonal-flavoured dango like the hanami (花見) dango, which is named after the cherry blossoms and is made to resemble the pink, white and green of the season’s scenery. You’ll typically get three to five dango on a stick.
There are also other types of dango depending on your preference for sweetness and filling level. For example, a sweet potato-filled dango might as well be a whole meal!
3. Senbei (煎餅)
You see this Japanese street food everywhere. You can buy senbei (煎餅) in-stores but the ones you get at a yatai are unbeatable — they’re cooked over a charcoal grill, giving a special kind of crispiness. Senbei can come in all kinds of shapes, sizes and flavors; typically they’re served savoury with soy sauce or salt seasoning, but you can also get them in sweet varieties as well.
Dense and crunchy senbei are common in Tokyo while lightly textured ones are more common in Kyoto because it’s made from mochigome (もち米) rice there. If you are in Nara and happen to have a few senbei with you, bring them to feed the sacred deers — they have grown to love this delicious local treat and might even bow to you for one!
4. Imagawayaki (今川焼き)
They look like mini pancakes — they might as well be. Imagawayaki (今川焼き) started out in Tokyo during the Edo era, and this sweet treat was named after a bridge that it was originally sold on. What a culturally rich treat, isn’t it?
Imagawayaki is made from a batter mix of flour, eggs, sugar and water. The mix is baked in disk-shaped molds that create golden and spongy bite-sized cakes. Normally, imagawayaki are filled with red bean paste, chocolate or custard — just like the taiyaki.
5. Yakiimo (焼き芋)
Travel back in time to olden Japan with this Japanese street food, the yakiimo (焼き芋). This autumn treat is sure to warm up your bellies and fill you with not only sweet potato goodness but also a blast of culture.
To make the yakiimo, Japanese sweet potatoes are baked carefully over a wood fire. They are then served in brown paper packets, sometimes in convenient bite sizes. Some even describe the soft skin of the yakiimo as caramel-like flavour.
6. Ikayaki (イカ焼き)
If you love takoyaki, take a step up and go for the ikayaki (イカ焼き)! Instead of getting cube-sized octopus bites, go all out and get a full squid, grilled over charcoal that gives the slimy meat a mouthwatering, chewy texture.
It may look like simple Japanese street food but when it’s made right, you’ll be surprised at how something so simple is so delicious. The skewered octopus is then topped off with a generous amount of soy sauce and a slice of lemon or lime to add on to the flavourful experience.
7. Yaki Tomorokoshi (焼きとうもろこし)
The Japanese love their corn — they appear on anything, from pizzas and pasta to bread. In summer, corn is in season, and that’s when this famous Japanese street food makes its appearance. Yaki tomorokoshi (焼きとうもろこし) is whole cobs of corn that are chargrilled over an open flame, sometimes with miso.
That’s not all there is to this treat; it’ll be brushed with a glaze of soy sauce, mirin and butter to give yaki tomorokoshi the mix of sweet and savoury depths in flavour. This Japanese street food can be a healthier alternative compared to the other fried and sugary options you find at other yatai.
Yaki tomorokoshi is often associated with Hokkaido, so that’s your best bet at seeing various yatai serving this snack. But because it’s become such a national street food, you’ll easily find this treat in any other city in Japan.
8. Shioyaki (塩焼き)
Don’t be deceived by the simplicity of how it looks; shioyaki (塩焼き) is actually quite a flavourful Japanese street food. It usually consists of fish that’s been marinated overnight in salt and grilled over flames the next day.
Usually, mackerel is used to create this dish as it’s one of the most common catches throughout the year. However, when there are seasonal catches of fish, the seasonal shioyaki make their way onto the yatai menu. An annual seasonal shioyaki is the tai no shioyaki (鯛の塩焼き) which is made of sea bream and can only be found at New Year festivals.
9. Nikuman (肉まん)
While you’ll get this all-year-round and even in convenience stores, nothing beats the ones at Japanese street festivals. This steamy dough with pork and onion filling called nikuman (肉まん) is usually served during the winter season to warm street folks right up.
These buns are pretty much the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese steamed buns called bao. Traditionally, the filling is meat but recently there have been tons of other kinds of fillings for these steamed buns — think red bean paste or even pizza toppings!
10. Candied Fruits
Last but definitely not least, one of the most unique Japanese street foods is candied fruits. This is without a doubt a street classic everywhere in Japan and you can find them in many fruit variations, all drenched generously with syrup.
The most common one is the ringo ame (リンゴ飴) which are candied apples. There are seasonal candied fruits as well, like the ichigo ame (イチゴ飴) which are candied strawberries that you’ll be able to taste at the peak of strawberry season in spring. If you’re lucky enough to spot a yatai selling mikan ame (ミカン飴), grab a stick because this candied mandarin is made of a fruit that’s native to Japan and quite rare.
Have these unique Japanese street foods got your mouth watering and belly rumbling yet? While there are only ten on the list, the world of Japanese street foods is huge and it’s nothing like anything you can imagine — you have to see it to believe it. So what are you waiting for? Get on planning a trip to Japan during the peak festive season for your ultimate foodie experience.
If you don’t already know, the Japanese have quite a special relationship with plastic. Some might even say the relationship is quite intimate — uh oh! It’s the kind of relationship that has quite a reputation and has been going on for an extended period of time.
However, it’s coming to the point where the numbers are reaching a dangerously high level. No matter what reasons there are, it’s come to the point where even the locals realize they need to do something about it. We can’t change the past, but what we can do is improve the present and plan for the future. And that’s exactly what Japan is doing.
Even though the efforts won’t be enough to fully reverse the effects of decades of damage, it will clear things up more than not doing anything. Let’s look at the whole unique relationship between Japan and plastic, and what else the country as well as us travelers can do to soften the impact of this excessive plastic usage.
Japan’s Plastic Usage Situation & The Reason Why
I bet you heard about the diligent recycling practice in Japan. The Japanese recycle almost everything, and yes, including plastic. You’ll find at least three types of bins in a row wherever you go in Japan. However, regardless of the recycling rate of 84%, Japan is facing extreme pressure from the rest of the world because of its excessive use of plastic!
Even though plastic is recycled, not all of the recycled plastic is renewed into other materials and forms. More than 50% are thermal recycled, and that’s not exactly great. These plastics are burned to provide energy and then dumping the incinerated waste in landfills. That causes a whole lot of other environmental issues!
The reason behind the lack of conscious effort with regards to plastic use may be due to the extreme usage being the social norm. I mean, you don’t really see people carrying their own shopping bags to the supermarket in Japan, do you? Water bottles aren’t as big of a thing when you have the convenience of vending machines.
How did the plastic usage in Japan become so extremely high in the first place, then? Let’s have a look at the common culprits that contribute to excessive plastic use:
One-time usage of plastic bags
You wouldn’t believe the number of plastic bag usage per person in Japan. There has been research that showed the average Japanese person uses about 450 plastic bags a year! That’s over one plastic bag a day! Can you imagine the total number of plastic bags used if every single one of the people in Japan uses that many plastic bags minimum each year over the span of a couple of years?
What’s more, these plastic bags are often of one-time usage. Supermarkets in Japan casually give out plastic bags to carry the groceries, and then the customers chuck them out as soon as they have unpacked their groceries at home. Smaller businesses are also doing the same thing — giving out plastic bags like giving out candy to kids. Not good at all.
The Japanese are obsessed with purchasing PET-bottled beverages. Japan has a huge market for that, from vending machines to rows and rows of PET bottled beverages in convenience stores, supermarkets, cafes and restaurants. Statistics show that there are about 23 billion PET bottles produced each year in Japan alone, making it about 183 PET bottles per person per year! Those numbers are insane!
Excessive plastic packaging of products
You might not believe it when I say that Japan contributes to the second-largest amount of plastic packaging waste in the whole world after the US, but you better believe it. Because they do! Statistics show that Japan produces more plastic than the rest of Asia combined per capita — Japan produces 106 kilograms of plastic for themselves while the rest of Asia produces 94 kilograms of plastic. Some of them are for export and not for the country itself, while Japan is for themselves alone!
Japan has a habit of wrapping a product more than a couple of times. Don’t be surprised to see items packed individually, each with their own designated plastic packaging (or two). Then, they’re all thrown into a bigger plastic bag for the customer’s convenience. Anything you can think of that can be packaged in plastic, the Japanese will go out of their way to wrap it in multiple layers of plastic.
All these extra packagings, as well as purchasing PET bottles and one-time plastic bag usage, can be due to their hygiene and cleanliness obsession as well as the need to provide the best and highest quality of customer service in terms of convenience. Some places do it for the sake of aesthetics — can you believe that?
How The Japanese Are Tackling The Plastic Usage Situation
It’s about time Japan realizes that their complicated relationship with plastic is not exactly good. The Japanese have realized that their excessive plastic consumption is damaging the environment and causing all sorts of problems. Not only the government is taking measures to reduce wastage but also local businesses.
It can be difficult for Japan to totally eliminate plastic usage — after all, it’s been part of their daily lives that it’s becoming a habit. Hopefully, these measures below help with progressing to a more plastic waste-free future!
Charging for plastic bags
After years of discussion, The Japanese government finally approved the proposal to charge for plastic bags. Starting in July 2020, it is mandatory for all retail stores in Japan to charge for their plastic bags. With this method, the government hopes to cut down the plastic usage by 25% by the year 2030.
Reduction and switch-out of plastic straws
One of the most prominent plastic wastage products is single-use plastic drinking straws. Japan has caught up with the rest of the world and some of the Japanese eateries have either switched out their plastic straws for paper and bamboo ones or not even offer them at all! Even bigger companies like Starbucks in Japan are opting out of plastic straws, inspiring other local cafes and restaurants to do the same.
Another effort to reduce single-use plastic straws is by big-name manufacturers like BALIISM and Amica Terra. They started the production of bamboo straws and supplying eateries in place of plastic straws. Bamboo straws are even more efficient than paper straws as the material can be naturally-processed and returned to nature after use. A Japanese chain restaurant called Watami has taken up this method and applied it to all of 60 of their outlets in Japan as well as the other 600 in the rest of Asia!
With over 60,000 locations in just Japan alone, convenience stores, or konbini (コンビニ) have quite the influence. If anyone scene can make a drastic difference in the excessive plastic usage situation, it’s definitely the konbini. The different konbini companies like FamilyMart and Lawson have taken their own individual measures to play their part in improving the situation. FamilyMart is often finding new ways of packaging their products to exclude plastic while Lawson switches out plastic cups for paper ones.
The support of local businesses
Even the big-name Japanese companies are following suit with regards to cutting down plastic usage. Everyone knows the extremely successful beverage company Asahi. It has been known to be a role model in this area, implementing measures since the early 2000s. Not only did they make their packaging more eco-friendly and introduce label-free bottles for their bottled beverages, Asahi even spread awareness using their influential social media platforms. Promoting campaigns as well as hosting competitions, they motivate their customers to reduce plastic wastage. Fast Retailing Group is another leading example. This company is the mother company of popular fashion brand UNIQLO. They switched out plastic bags for recyclable paper bags.
How Can We Avoid Plastic Usage in Japan?
The dangerous levels of plastic usage in the country are no joke. Regardless if we’re living in Japan or merely going there for travel, we should all play our part to reduce plastic usage and play a part in protecting the environment. There are tons of easy things we can all do without going out of our way to avoid plastic usage. Even the smallest of efforts create big results if everyone is doing it. Let’s find out the methods we can implement to avoid plastic usage in Japan.
Say No to Plastic Bags
The ultimate way to help is to put a stop to single-use plastic bags. Instead of accepting the plastic bag from supermarkets and convenience stores, or even takeout service, why not try declining them? Supermarkets are flooded with cardboard boxes used to transport the store’s goods. Some of these grocery stores offer the alternative use of cardboard boxes to carry your groceries instead of plastic bags. But if the one you go to does not, approach the staff to request the switch. They’ll be more than happy to provide you with one.
Skip the Plastic Straws
This measure has been practiced by the rest of the world, and Japan is slowly catching on. Similar to single-use plastic bags, skip the single-use plastic straws. If every drink in Japan skips the plastic straw, the number of plastic straw usage will drastically decrease! One small step taken by an individual is a ginormous one taken by Japan.
If you’re ready to take the next step of contributing to a waste-free future in Japan, what about the idea of bringing your own utensils? This can be anything from your own cups and containers to multi-use straws and reusable shopping bags.
Bring your own mug and hand it over to the staff to make your drink in the mug instead of a plastic cup. Get on the bandwagon of metal straws — yes, there are even ones big enough for your tapioca pearls! You’re not only helping the environment but also producing aesthetically pleasing Instagram photos.
While you’re at it, grab a reusable shopping bag before heading out the door for your grocery shopping. It doesn’t have to be a fancy one, but if you insist, Daiso has quite a few cool ones like the netting shopping bag — only for ¥100!
Useful Words & Phrases
Japan is not exactly English-friendly. Their first language is Japanese. Even though they study English in school from a young age, their lack of exposure and opportunity to use the language result in their inability to converse confidently in English. Because of that, learning a few words and phrases in Japanese will greatly ease the whole process of communication.
Here are some general words to help with your efforts to reduce plastic usage:
Fukuro (袋) — Bag
Sutoro (ストロー) — Straw
Futa (フタ) — Plastic lid for cup
Madora (マドラ) — Stopper for takeaway cups
Reshiito (レシット) — Receipt
Use those words together with these useful phrases:
~ wa iranai desu (〜はいらないです) — “I don’t want/need _____”
Jibun no ~ wa tsukaimasu (自分の〜は使います) — “I will use my own _____”
This complicated relationship Japan has with plastic led to the Japanese being too dependable on plastic usage, so much that it’s technically part of their lifestyle now. Thankfully the country is starting to realize its ways and making changes for the better. With all of the government’s implementations and the locals’ efforts to limit plastic usage, Japan will be well on its way to a waste-free future in no time!
Those of us who have learned or are still learning Japanese would be aware of the various writing systems in the Japanese language. Some of us were even taken aback and overwhelmed by the number of characters in just the hiragana writing system, let alone all three! At one point during our studying period, we probably wondered if it’s even necessary to learn all three of the Japanese writing systems. I mean, surely a language wouldn’t need that many characters.
I bet we go back and forth with ourselves on whether or not it’s worth memorizing every single hiragana (ひらがな), katakana (カタカナ), and the infinite kanji (漢字) characters. How significant are each of the Japanese writing systems, actually? Let’s find out!
The Japanese Writing Systems: Hiragana, Katakana & Kanji
The Japanese writing system sounds very technical, doesn’t it? Well, the term is unavoidable — it is the very basics of the Japanese language. In English, there is only one script: the Latin script. In Japanese, they have three: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Technically four, as the romaji (ローマ字) is also a kind of writing system but the Japanese don’t use them as often as this system is just the Romanisation of the Japanese language.
Hiragana and katakana writing systems are native to Japan. The characters for these scripts are syllable sounds. Kanji, on the other hand, is borrowed from China and is made up of logograms where each character represents whole words instead.
In just one sentence, you’ll see all three of the writing scripts. Just by introducing your name in a sentence like “私の名前はアズラです” (this translates to “My name is Azra”) already has hiragana, katakana, and kanji in it!
Bonus point: the combined name for hiragana and katakana is called kana (仮名).
Let’s take a look at the first Japanese writing system, the hiragana. The system has 46 basic characters and each one of them has its own sound. The main vowels are a, i, e, o, and u — similar to the English language. They’re written as あ, い, え, お and う.
The hiragana was created by the women as a simpler alternative to the kanji back in the 8th century. During those days, only the men were allowed to be educated in reading and writing. Kanji was also the only writing system back then. After a while, the men realized that the hiragana is based on sounds rather than logograms, so they took up this writing system as well.
Hiragana is mostly used for particles, adverbs, postpositions, auxiliary verbs, function words, and Japanese origin words. Sometimes they are used as a replacement for kanji characters when there is no kanji for it, or even when the kanji is too high-level to be read by others. There’s also the time when hiragana is used as furigana (ふりがな), which is a Japanese reading aid where the hiragana characters are above the kanji characters to help with pronunciation.
The word sumimasen (すみません), translating to “excuse me”, is fully written in hiragana because its origin is Japanese. This is also the same for the word yokoso (ようこそ) to mean welcome.
Just like the hiragana, the katakana is also a native writing system of Japan based on sounds rather than logograms. The katakana has a more angular shape compared to the hiragana which are more rounded and cursive. The katakana writing system also has the same vowels of a, e, i, o and u, but they are written as ア, エ,イ, オ and ウ. If they’re so similar, why the need for another writing system?
The katakana writing system has a similar history to the hiragana writing system — both stem from how difficult kanji is and hence the birth of these new alphabet systems. The difference between hiragana and katakana is that the katakana characters are just simplified versions of the kanji symbols themselves. After a while, they were standardized to become an alphabet.
Back then, they were a companion to the kanji characters. Now, they are used to write words of foreign origin, modern loan words, slang, and colloquialisms. Words like kohi (コーヒ, which is coffee in Japanese) and keki (ケーキ, to mean cake) are all written in katakana as they are foreign loan words.
Here comes the arguably hardest writing system of all of the Japanese writing system: the kanji. It is the first writing system introduced in Japan in the 4th century. The Japanese had their own spoken language but not a written one.
The kanji characters are logograms, which means each character is like a picture that represents words or even an idea. Sometimes, one kanji character can contain various symbols, each with their own meanings! There are about 50,000 kanji characters in existence — don’t panic just yet, studies showed that 500 of the most common kanji can account for 80% of the entire kanji in a regular text script like a newspaper.
While they are loaned from the China language, the pronunciations of the kanji characters are quite different. The Japanese took the characters of the Chinese kanji and matched it to the same word in the Japanese language. The Chinese pronunciation is still used to this day, however. So there are two ways of pronouncing just one kanji: the Chinese way which is the onyomi (音読み) and the Japanese way which is the kunyomi (訓読み).
Take the kanji 山 to mean “mountain” for example. A Japanese person will look at it and pronounce it the kunyomi way, “yama (やま)”, but a Chinese will look at it and pronounce the onyomi pronunciation, which is “san (さん)”.
Kanji characters are used when there are content-heavy words — nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives are all possible to be written in kanji. Because of that, you’re more likely to see kanji characters than kana characters in Japanese texts.
Are All Of Them Significant in Japanese Writing?
So the question remains: are all of the Japanese writing systems significant in the language? The answer is: yes!
Having all three of the Japanese writing systems in a sentence creates easier readability, especially the kanji characters. They create natural pauses and breaks in a sentence for the reader to separate which ones are nouns and which are verbs. Having a hiragana-only sentence is like having an English sentence without the spaces — extremely difficult to read and more-than-borderline confusing!
The katakana adds an extra specialty to the Japanese sentences. In my opinion, it adds that unique notion — sometimes the katakana words look classier and more modern, don’t you think?
It might be easier to convince yourself that one (or two) of the Japanese writing systems is not significant enough to include in your Japanese studies — I mean, one can pull off a full sentence with just hiragana alone, right? However, why put in half the effort into the Japanese language learning when you can hustle just at the start by memorizing a couple more characters and have it easier later on — especially now that we know all three of the Japanese writing systems are extremely significant individually and together!
The Japanese language has three writing systems: hiragana (ひらがな), katakana (カタカナ) and kanji (漢字). In one sentence, you can have all three! How amazing is that! However, for those who are considering picking up the language, it might be intimidating as three writing systems seems like a challenge — some might have the mentality that one writing system is hard enough to master!
Out of the three, kanji is usually the writing system that Japanese learners have difficulty in getting used to. Each character looks so complicated and there are so many characters that it seems like there is no end to them! Because of that, some even drop the kanji and focus on the other two writing systems, hiragana and katakana.
This brings up the question: how important is kanji in the Japanese language that one can just not study it? Does one really need to know the kanji to be fluent in Japanese? Let’s take a look at the importance of kanji and how it plays a role in this culturally rich language!
Kanji As One of Three Japanese Writing Systems
Kanji characters in the Japanese language are basically the Chinese characters. The Japanese adopted the kanji from them, however, there is no direct link between the two language families other than using the same characters. In fact, there are even differences between how the Chinese pronounce their characters and how the Japanese pronounce their characters. This is known as the onyomi (音読み) and kunyomi (訓読み). The onyomi is the Chinese-style reading based on the sounds of the ancient Chinese languages. Kunyomi is the native Japanese reading.
An example is the kanji 草. The Chinese pronunciation, the onyomi, is “sou” while the Japanese pronunciation, the kunyomi, is “kusa”. The kanji on its own is pronounced in kunyomi, but when it is connected with another kanji, both words are pronounced in the onyomi way most of the time. For example, if the kanji 草 joins with the kanji 食, it becomes soushoku (草食) to mean herbivorous.
How cool are the flexible changes of kanji in the Japanese language?
The Importance of Kanji in the Japanese Language
You may not want to believe it, but kanji is extremely important in the Japanese language. They are so significant in interpreting the meanings of the sentence and words. There’s not only one way that the kanji is notably useful in the Japanese language — there’s quite a few. Let’s take a look at some of them!
Prediction of meanings
While it’s best to know the pronunciation of the kanji characters, even if you don’t, you can somehow guess the context if you know the meaning of the kanji character. Once you can recognize kanji characters individually, you can definitely recognize them when they’re joined together.
For example, the word for anthropology in Japanese is jinruigaku (人類学). Even if you don’t know the word in Japanese and how it’s pronounced, you can guess what the word of combined kanji characters based on the individual meaning. The kanji 人 refers to “human”, the kanji 類 means “kind” and the kanji 学 has the meaning of “study”. All of these kanji characters are basic to lower-intermediate. If you combine all of them together, you can guess that the combined kanji characters refer to the study of humankind.
This technique can be applied to most, if not all, of the kanji characters in the Japanese language.
In the Japanese language, there are tons of homonyms, which means that there are so many words that have the same pronunciation and sound. One pronunciation can have over 50 different meanings! The Japanese differentiate them from the kanji characters.
A simple example is the pronunciation of “kanji”. Even this pronunciation has at least two different meanings. One is kanji (漢字) which refers to the Chinese characters, and the other is kanji (感じ) which has the meaning of “feeling”. These two words have totally different meanings but the exact same pronunciation! If one uses just the hiragana which is かんじ, people reading it wouldn’t be sure what it’s actually referring to, but with the kanji characters, they’ll be able to.
Another example is the pronunciation “kigen”. It can mean a few things: origin (起源), deadline (期限), mood (機嫌), and era (紀元) are just a few examples.
Radicals refer to the components in a kanji character. Some kanji characters are made up of a few other kanji characters squished together into one character. For example, the kanji 木 refers to “wood”, but it is also a radical in a few other kanji characters like branch (枝), cedar (杉), root (根) and forest (林). On the left side of the kanji character, you can identify the 木 kanji. Similar to predicting the meanings of a word consisting of kanji characters, you can also predict a kanji character based on the radicals made up of other kanji characters.
Another example is water (水). You can find the radical of water in these words: liquid (液), sea (海), pond (池), lake (湖), teardrop (涙), waterfall (滝) and so many more!
Some radicals are not always on the left side. They can be on the right side, upper side or even lower side. The kanji 草, is a radical in a few of these kanji on the upper side: flower (花), strawberry (苺), tea (茶) and potato (芋). All of the kanji characters with the same radical are related to the same thing, and in this case, they’re related to plants.
Why Should We Learn Kanji?
It might be easier to just stick to hiragana and katakana. Maybe starting out, it definitely is more convenient, especially if you’re trying to grasp the basic vocabulary and grammar. But if you’re looking to advance more, kanji is definitely essential.
If the importance of kanji in the Japanese language is not convincing enough to learn kanji, then here are other reasons why we should all learn kanji when learning the Japanese language:
Kanji gives meaning to words
Without kanji characters, one would just have to guess the meaning based on context, like in English. But with kanji characters, it gives the words meaning and assists the reader. It’s easier to differentiate one meaning from the other with the kanji characters. On top of that, it gives the word some character and personality. Once you get the hang of the kanji characters, you’ll realize the kanji characters reflect the same essence of the meaning. For example, 愛 has the meaning of love, and in that sense, the kanji gives off a warm embrace.
Kanji makes sentences easier to read
You wouldn’t believe it, but kanji makes sentences far easier to read than if it were just made up of hiragana. It makes you a faster reader in the long run. Once you are super familiar with kanji characters, you’ll end up sprinting through a book in minutes (that’s an exaggeration, but you know what we mean).
Let’s use an example:
Kyou wa sushi o tabe ni ikimasu ka?
It is arguably harder to read than when there is kanji involved. Here’s the sentence with kanji:
Sometimes, some people can even skim over the recognized kanji instead of sounding out each hiragana character in their head. It’s like recognizing a picture — your mind understands it and grasps it well but doesn’t have to sound it all out. Similarly, you’ll be able to understand the meaning of a sentence just by recognizing each kanji one by one instantly.
Kanji takes up less space
One kanji character can have two to three (or even more) syllables. If you’re writing a sentence with only hiragana, you’ll be using a lot of space for each syllable, whereas if there are kanji characters involved, you’re basically compressing some syllables into one space. Instead of a 10-page paper, you’ll end up with a 7-page paper with the use of kanji because it takes up less space, making it very efficient and even neater.
Useful Kanjis To Know
With all this talk about kanji, here are some really useful kanji characters to know that will help you with future kanji characters that might be more complicated and confusing:
入 — enter
口 — entrance
出 — exit
駅 — station
車 — car
左 — left
右 — right
電 — electricity
Kanji is just as important as the other two writing systems in the Japanese language. While it is a bit more of a challenge compared to hiragana and katakana, you’ll not only be thankful that you learned it because it’s so widely used in Japan but also proud of yourself for mastering this writing system. Ganbatte (頑張って), you can do it if you put in the effort!