News and Blog

All the latest news from The J Team

Out Of Office 29th December – 3rd January : This Is What We’re Doing To Celebrate New Year

Both our Tokyo HQ and Kyoto office will be closed during the Japanese New Year celebrations from 29th December to 3rd January.

What does New Year mean to Japanese?

With obon (a holiday to honor one’s ancestors, similar to the Chinese Ching Ming grave sweeping Festival) in mid-August, the New Year period is the most spiritual for Japan.

The first few days of the year are spent celebrating with family, consuming delectable food and sumptuous sake, as well as making a visit to the local shrine to pray for good fortune over the coming year, but the weeks and days before the new year are a frenzy of cleaning and tidying to make sure no clutter is carried over (Marie Kondo, FTW!) into the fresh start offered by 1st January.

This means that first our offices, then our homes and even cars are given what English-speakers might call a thorough spring clean. The great honour for completion of these tasks is the right to hang a special New Year decoration. These are different and specific for workplaces, homes, and cars. Generally they feature an evergreen leaf and a mikan (mandarin orange).

As with all great celebrations, after the cleaning, it is time to focus on the food. The traditional, exquisitely presented o-sechi that is served in three-tier obento boxes (only used at New Year) is meticulously and laboriously (see a previous blog post about the virtue of struggle) prepared over a number of days, typically 29th – 31st December. The plan is that this o-sechi will provide sustenance throughout the various family and community gatherings and celebrations on 1st, 2nd and 3rd January (when most businesses – including restaurants – are closed anyway!).

Thanking our industry colleagues –

Our industry colleagues – particularly hoteliers and professional caterers – are also busy at this time of year, with demand for accommodation as families gather, and a desire to indulge in o-sechi meals prepared by a professional chef.

We do try to give our guides a bit of a break to recharge at this time of year. However, if you are making the most of the opportunity to explore Japan’s winter traditions and celebrations in temples, shrines and streets, there will be someone ready and willing to share the fun with you.

Yoi o-toshi-o – and have very happy New Year celebrations!

Where’s the Beef? Kobe!

There are many reasons to travel to Japan, and food is near the top of many people’s lists.

Certainly sushi is Japan’s most famous dish, but perhaps its most famous food-related brand is Kobe beef. Not Matsuzaka beef. Not Omi beef.

Kobe beef.

That’s not because Matsuzaka beef is less delicious – few people on earth, no matter how sophisticated their palates, can tell the difference between Matsuzaka beef and Kobe beef – but because of history.

In 1868, when Kobe was opened to foreign trade, resident foreigners and visiting sailors fueled demand for beef, which previously had been little eaten by (Buddhist) Japanese.

In 1869, the acting British Consul in the town that would become Kobe wrote, “Great attention is now being paid to the breeding and rearing of cattle … and their superiority over cattle of other parts of Japan is attributed to the better quality of food procurable.”

Today, Kobe beef farmers will tell you that environment (climate and feed) are critical to the production of top-quality Kobe beef, but equally important are genetics. The Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association grades and approves Kobe beef, and the starting point for qualification is that cows (and bullocks) must be 100 percent pure descendants of Japanese Black cows from Tajima, a mountainous region in the north of Hyogo prefecture, and born, raised and slaughtered in the prefecture.

In sushi restaurants, one of the most prized – and expensive – portions of tuna comes from the lower belly of the fish, and is called o-toro. O-toro is the fattiest part of the tuna, and aficionados favor it in winter, when the tuna have packed on extra fat to ward off the cold.

In Kobe beef, the marbled fat is known as shimofuri, and dissolves at low temperatures, providing the sensation that the meat is melting in the diner’s mouth.

Only when farmers succeed in developing the right balance is the beef they raise entitled to be called “Kobe beef”. The Japan Meat Grading Association assesses meat quality according to four factors: beef marbling; meat color and brightness, meat firmness and texture; and the color, luster and quality of the beef fat. The association issues certificates to farmers, linked to the unique 10-digit numbers their cows were assigned at birth, plus a nose print, and information about their quality.

Almost 10 years ago, Shinya Ueda, a 51-year-old breeder/feeder who has been farming Kobe cattle for 25 years, won the Distinction Award as the “best of the best” at the annual Kyorei Kai cattle show. He explains that the Japan Meat Grading Association issues a Beef Marbling Score (BMS) that qualifies beef (or doesn’t) as “Kobe beef” in Japan.

“A BMS score of six or above is necessary for qualification as Kobe beef,” Ueda explains. “The scale runs up to 12, but I like a score of nine, and I try to raise my cows to meet that standard. The amount of fat affects flavor and texture, and ultimately, what you prefer is a matter of personal taste.”

Half an hour up the road from the Ueda farm are the barns of another prize-winning farmer, Katsunori Ohta. Katsunori and his brother Tetsuya earned the Kobe Beef Association’s Distinction Award in 2011 and 2012, and they not only raise cattle but also serve it to consumers in three restaurants and a retail shop.

Ohta says, “The cows themselves are not large, but the key to raising top-quality Kobe beef is balance and proportion. Of course pedigree is important, but it is the feeding that produces champion cattle. Every farmer has his own ‘secret’ recipe, but basically we are feeding our cattle a blend of rice straw, soybean, maize, barley and other cereals.”

At the New York Grill in Tokyo’s Park Hyatt Hotel (you remember it from Lost in Translation), a 180-gram piece of prime Kobe beef will set you back almost ¥30,000 (USD215), but a much less expensive omiyage (souvenir) of a trip to Kobe beef country in Hyogo prefecture can be had at the retail shop Ueda-san and his wife Miyuki maintain in the town of Toyooka, on the Japan Sea coast.

The small, well-designed shop features the usual refrigerated case displaying cuts of meat, but also, on the wall are posted certificates attesting to the provenance of the beef for sale. From Miyuki-san you can learn that all the cuts of a Kobe cow are called Kobe beef, and that while the filet is the most expensive, there are plenty of less expensive options.

We spent around USD75 on around 500 grams of “zabuton” beef, which comes from the short rib, and we bought some of the Uedas’ soy-based marinade. Miyuki put some Kobe beef tallow into our package, and sent us on my way with a single instruction: “Don’t overcook it!”

Dear reader, we did not. After melting a small bit of the beef tallow, we seared our steak (Miyuki’s assistant had sliced it into small pieces the size of business cards, around 70 millimeters thick) over high heat for less than a minute on each side, and seasoned with salt and pepper (we’re saving the marinade for future, less pedigreed dinners). It was delicious. No, really. Absolutely melt-in-your-mouth delicious.

One last note: You can get Kobe beef outside Japan, but there are a few things you should know.

First, if your local restaurant is offering “Kobe beef”, it should be Kobe beef, raised by Ueda-san, Ohta-san or another farmer in Hyogo prefecture in Japan, and it should have come with a certificate featuring the cow’s 10-digit identification number and nose print. If in doubt, ask. Unfortunately, plenty of restaurateurs sell “Kobe beef” that is not, in fact, Kobe beef. The beef may be excellent, but do you want to pay the premium associated with the name? That’s up to you.

Second, it’s worth knowing that “wagyu” is a Japanese word meaning “domestic beef”. In Japan, wagyu means Japanese beef. In other countries, “wagyu” could technically mean “domestic beef”, but the suggestion is that it’s Japanese beef. Again, do you want to pay the premium associated with the name? That’s up to you. Finally, some farmers outside Japan raise “Wagyu-style” or “Kobe-style” beef, which should be the result of Japanese cattle crossbred with local (e.g. Angus) cattle. In many cases these cattle are intentionally bred to cater to local tastes, which often means they are less marbled with fat. Still tasty, but different.

Engaging in “the Virtuous Struggle”

Language, they say, can give deep and enlightening insights into a country, a people, and their (business) culture. The Japanese language has a particular fascination with concept of struggle, and with treating struggle as a great virtue. Therefore, let us arm you with some words and phrases that you’ll hear several times a day back-of-house at a business event.

At the end of each day, and even at the end of a given task within a day, it is compulsory to compliment your team with “otsukaresama”, which literally means, “you must be exhausted”, and contains the additional inference, “after your long and virtuous struggle today”. Although, if it’s been a real proper trial, you can consider using the more serious “gokurosama”, which implies dedication above and beyond, for much longer than anyone else would have put in the time or effort.

Which leads on to the majestic, “isshokenmei”. This phrase that describes someone doing their absolute best uses kanji characters that imply giving your entire lifeblood, your entire being, to the task in hand. This phrase can actually be written in two different ways in Japanese. One communicates the above “your whole life” meaning. The other suggests having done one’s best “in one place”, which gives another fascinating insight in to the Japanese sense of belonging that denotes not just a position of rank, but can, and often is, a geographical location too.

Other words and phrases oft-heard in the workplace, on sports teams, and on the street, which acknowledge and celebrate hard work towards any given goal: “taihen” (multiple meanings, but in this context, “that was difficult!”, “yabai” (this can mean either “that was bad!” or “that was good!”), “shindoi” (“that was tiresome!”), “muzukashii” (a range of nuance, but most often “that was/is difficult!”; and, in most business contexts, “it’ll never happen”). Enjoy dropping a few of these into your next business interaction in Japan!

To wider Japanese society, when processes might seem to be too straightforward, complications are delicately added to the system. It’s a great way of keeping you on your toes. Moreover, it’s a great way to keep all the “otsukare” and “taihen!” phrases in active use.

Half tongue-in-cheek, we sometimes like to describe society here as, “take something really simple, and work out how to complicate it as much as possible, then you have Japan”. Take a look at the tea ceremony, for example! It’s on the bucket list, just because it is such a ceremonial way of having a cuppa.

Whilst we enjoy seeing the quirky side of Japan that has been our home for decades, we also take this opportunity to assure you that when it comes to event planning and operation, we believe that you should never see any of the struggle that Japan imposes, virtuous or other. Let us keep that well-hidden from you.

Noma Chef René Redzepi Brings Coals to Newcastle

Idiom of the day: “Bringing coals to Newcastle” is an English idiom used to describe a pointless action. During the Industrial Revolution, Newcastle was a centre for the British coal mining industry, and it would have made no sense to bring coal to Newcastle.

We were reminded of the phrase this morning when we read that Noma, the Michelin three-star restaurant in Copenhagen run by chef René Redzepi, is planning to open a 10-week “residency” in Kyoto next spring. The meal will cost 850 euros per person including drinks, tax and service.

Noma’s website says, “We have traveled throughout Japan and this specific region for many years. We have studied and researched the history and the food culture, in particular kaiseki cuisine. For our Kyoto menu, we will source ingredients from local farmers, hunters, fishmongers, and foragers and will work very closely with this local network of suppliers. Our menu will reflect the sakura season in Kyoto, yet, we will not be a Japanese restaurant.”

Like many contemporary superstar chefs, Redzepi worked at Ferran Adrià’s famous El Bulli restaurant in Catalonia, Spain, and told The New York Times, “I was taught that the tasting menu was invented by the French and then reinvented in Spain. I had no idea of the vast repository of ideas and techniques that is Japanese food.”

In fact, in 1965 the legendary French chef Paul Bocuse traveled to Japan, was introduced to kaiseki, and returned to Lyon to pioneer nouvelle cuisine, which reimagined French cooking with an emphasis on seasonality, the quality of ingredients, and a dramatic procession of stylishly presented plates.

Nothing at all against Noma, which has been ranked the “world’s best restaurant” several times, including only last year, but if you’re in Kyoto and want a multi-course meal that balances the taste, texture, appearance, and colors of food, you are spoiled for choice.

Many non-Japanese have had the experience of eating an omakase Japanese meal. Omakase means “I’ll leave it up to you”, and if you’ve had a high-end sushi meal, you may have “left it up to” the chef (recommended!).

Kaiseki is different. Yes, you’re “leaving it up to” the chef, but the chef’s preparation started months earlier, not that morning at the fish market. A kaiseki meal may incorporate hundreds of ingredients, and no detail is left unconsidered. In the autumn along Kyoto’s Kamogawa River, you can see young kitchen apprentices collecting fallen autumn leaves that will be used in presenting one or more dishes.

The “rules” governing the preparation of a kaiseki meal can be myriad, but most important are seasonality, local ingredients and presentation. But other “rules” might include serving pieces of sashimi in odd numbers only (there is plenty of superstition in Japan and East Asia); serving round food in square dishes and vice versa; and serving food in/on dishes of different shapes and materials.

If you stay in a high-end ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), a kaiseki dinner may be included in the price. But if you are staying in another sort of establishment (e.g. a modern hotel), you can experience kaiseki in a ryotei, a traditional Japanese restaurant historically associated with geisha and if we’re honest, influence-peddling!

It used to be the case that access to ryotei was only by introduction from another customer, but times have changed. A good concierge can get you a reservation at a superb ryotei. And so can the friendly folks at The J Team!

Not an idiom, but a famous proverb is “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

When we’re in Rome, we don’t eat Japanese food. When we’re in Kyoto, we go for kaiseki.

On the Run in Japan

Some of us at The J Team are longtime runners, and we are of the view that there are few better ways to explore a new place (and shake off jet lag!) than by lacing up our running shoes and heading out into the city (or countryside) to see the sights! In fact, one of us, on his first trip to Tokyo, over 30 years ago (!) turned down a beautifully green avenue, thinking it was the entrance to a public park. An agitated guard bolted from his hut to chase him down (well, to shout, because he was long past the age of chasing!) and we learned that there is no running permitted in Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine! Oops!

Since then, we have run up and down Mount Fuji; competed in the Tokyo Marathon; enjoyed local hospitality (fresh strawberries at one aid station, served up by players from a middle school baseball team, in uniform!) at other, more rural marathons (once, we won a delicious local melon for placing our age group!); struggled through one of Japan’s more famous ultramarathons (in which there were as many volunteers as competitors); and of course enjoyed scenic runs in many cities and rural settings.

Our usual strategy when we’re on the road is to figure out the distance we’d like to cover, then look at the map to see how far our fitness might take us. Alternatively, the fitness app Strava has a relatively new feature called Routes that offers suggestions from local athletes (or are they algorithmically generated???). One of our favorite Tokyo runs is across the Rainbow Bridge to Odaiba, north across the reclaimed islands of Harumi district, and back across Tsukiji Bridge, adjacent to Hama Rikyu Gardens (former aristocratic gardens built in the 17th century, and one of our favorite places in Tokyo!!!).

If you’re a runner staying in the Maranouchi business district near Tokyo Station, you’ll definitely want to make a few loops of the Imperial Palace, probably the best-known running route in Tokyo. A single loop is almost exactly 5km, and at the right time of day you may encounter one of Japan’s professional or university ekiden (long-distance relay) teams, probably jogging slowly, but don’t let that fool you!

In Kyoto, a favorite run is up the cycle path that runs alongside the Kamogawa River. Long distance runners can continue out of the city up into the hills, and those looking for a shorter loop might think about incorporating the extremely scenic 1.5km of Philosopher’s Walk into their route.

Northeast of (and overlooking) Kyoto is Mount Hiei, home to the Enryaku-ji temple, which is home to the “marathon monks”, who attempt to complete 100 30km loops of Mount Hiei on 100 consecutive nights, in pursuit of greater enlightenment. Those who complete the 100-day challenge may request permission to continue, attempting to complete an additional 900 laps over the next seven years. In summer, in winter, and in straw sandals. Fun!

Something we have often found valuable as we’ve explored Japan while wearing running shoes is the country’s wide-ranging train network.

In less than an hour, you can travel from Tokyo Station to the seaside town of Kamakura, which nearly a thousand years ago was the de facto capital of Japan. Kamakura is flat and compact; in a few hours, you jog past (and go into) many of the nearly town’s 100 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, some of which are over 1,200 years old. If you want to run long, the hills outside Kamakura feature wooded running trails that stretch into the surrounding communities of Zushi and Hayama.

Another great destination for Tokyo-based runners is Mount Takao, which is less than an hour by train from Shinjuku Station. Technically part of Tokyo City, Mount Takao is popular with hikers, but large enough that even with 2.5 million visitors annually, it never feels crowded. A particularly beautiful time of year for a run up and down the mountain is right now. Unsurprisingly, spring is another great time to visit.

Of course, as runners, we run. There are few sporting activities more portable, and we have rarely visited a country or city or town without lacing up our running shoes to explore. We bring our phones with us so we can snap photos, and because we’re older and slower than we used to be, we’re more willing to stop just about anywhere to take a souvenir photo.

One thing we are often asked by visitors who are interested in running in Japan is: “How safe is it?” Short answer: safer than almost anywhere else. And yet, while you will almost certainly never have an issue while out running in Japan, any time of night or day, a big part of never having an issue is knowing how to take care of yourself.

Here are a few suggestions that are valuable anywhere:

1. DON’T run wearing headphones in unfamiliar environments. They make you less aware of your surroundings and put you at greater risk of injury, accident or attack.

2. DO run with a partner if you can. In the worst-case scenario, one of you can run for help. More likely, a potential attacker will look for an easier mark.

3. DON’T be tempted to carry a pepper spray or stunning device with you for your own protection. In many places these are classified as prohibited weapons, and unless you are well-trained, it’s likely you won’t be able to use them successfully.

4. NEVER GET TRAPPED. If you find yourself alone in a dangerous situation, never back yourself into bushes, cliffs or other impenetrable obstacles. You’re a runner, and nearly all the time, running toward open ground will provide your best exit options.

5. USE A DISTRACTION. If you have to run for it, try to distract your attacker first. Pretend you are calling to someone behind the would-be-attacker; this can provide vital seconds of advantage in making an escape.

6. NEVER PERMIT PHYSICAL CONTACT. Keeping your distance from a would-be attacker is essential. Once physical contact has occurred, the probability of escape diminishes considerably.

7. CARRY A PHONE. Even just pulling out a phone in a sketchy situation may scare off a would-be attacker. And did you know you can call emergency services without even unlocking your phone?

8. If you feel you’d like to gain more confidence, TAKE A SELF-DEFENCE CLASS from a qualified instructor. However, in most situations the best advice is never to allow the assailant to make physical contact with you.

Yes, Japan is a very safe place, but of course the best way to avoid a dangerous situation is to never allow yourself to get into the situation in the first place. Use the guidelines above and in all likelihood, you’ll never have a problem.