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All the latest news from The J Team

The Best Place in Japan for Vegetarians Is …

A few weeks ago we wrote about Kobe beef, but what if you’re not a meat eater?

As we wrote in the beef post, prior to the arrival of foreigners, Japanese were not big meat eaters. Coastal Japanese ate plenty of fish, certainly, inlanders trapped wild game, and the rest was vegetables (and seaweed!).

Today, unfortunately, it’s not as easy to find vegetarian restaurants as it was 150 years ago. [The good news is, public transportation is much improved since that time!]

Still, Japan is slowly rediscovering vegetarianism, and in the major cities of Tokyo and Osaka it’s not difficult to find vegetarian restaurants.

And in Kyoto, it’s easy.

Because Kyoto is the base for most of Japan’s main Buddhist sects, it has long (since the 13th century) been a center for shojin ryori, traditional Buddhist temple cuisine.

Like a great deal of food in Kyoto, shojin ryori is notable for its beautiful presentation, and for using seasonal ingredients.

You can find casual vegetarian cafes in Kyoto, and more sophisticated cuisine, though travelers on a budget can almost always dine affordably at good restaurants by going there for lunch (and ordering the set lunch) rather than dinner.

One important note: if you are strictly vegetarian, you will want to confirm that the restaurant prepares its dishes with dashi (stock) made from konbu (kelp) rather than bonito flakes, which is much more common. We’re very happy to provide suggestions of vegetarian restaurants in Kyoto and other cities. Hit us up with questions!

‘Cool Japan’ or ‘Your Japan’?

In October, “Cool Japan” ambassador Benjamin Boas published a book titled From ‘Cool Japan’ to ‘Your Japan’. The volume was in part the result of Boas’s feeling that the people in charge of marketing (“cool”) Japan to the world were missing the point: it’s not up to a government agency to tell tourists what they should appreciate in a country’s culture; they’ll find that thing on their own.

In Boas’s case, video games provided the spark for his interest in Japan, he studied Japanese language and culture at university in the United States, and eventually made his way across the Pacific, where he found himself serving as a bridge between Japan and the world.

Several years after the Japanese government launched its “Cool Japan” campaign in 2010, Boas published a critique of the initiative, and not long after, was contacted by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s Creative Industries Promotion Office and asked to serve as an ambassador for the brand.

In a recent interview with The Japan Times, Boas said, “Nobody ever told me to like video games, I found them on my own. I never understood why anyone had to put any degree of effort into telling people what to like.”

Well, yes and no.

The average Hollywood movie costs $100 million to make, of which $35 million is spent on marketing.

Why? So you’ll know the movie exists. So you’ll know who stars in it, and whether it’s a comedy or a love story or an action-packed thriller.

The fact is, today’s travelers have a lot of choices.

They can go to Morocco or Brazil or New Zealand or Japan, among many other attractive destinations.

It’s our job to first of all put Japan on travelers’ radar screens, then help them find “their Japan”.

How do we do that?

By trying to understand their interests.

Are they outdoors people? Indoors people? Techies? Foodies? Sports nuts? Culture vultures?

Most importantly for us, are they interested in experiencing something different?

Because we’re not the people to come to for a “plain vanilla” (or even “plain matcha”!) travel adventure.

But we do disagree with Benjamin Boas that people can and should “find their Japan” on their own. Japan, like most countries and cultures, is a complex place with a long and interesting history.

We spend lots of time outside our offices, road-testing the experiences and meeting the characters that tell Japan’s story, and working to figure out how best to package Japan’s attractions to meet individual desire (and exceed expectations!). So although we’re very happy when clients come to us with a very clear idea of what they want from their Japan adventures, we’re also very happy to offer suggestions based on our collective decades of experience!

Just Mixing The Faiths (for Perfect Harmony)

Business events often incorporate elements of the two main faiths of the Japanese. Perhaps a morning blessing at a Shinto shrine to herald success; and a special dinner at a Buddhist temple to close. This mix and match approach is in perfect harmony with Japanese society itself.

It is difficult to define who is a dedicated follower of Shinto, and who prioritises Buddhism in Japan. Many surveys that try to find out tend to obtain results that about 70-80% of the population follow some element of Shinto practices in their daily lives; and … about 60-70% follow Buddhist practices. This apparent overlap is probably one of the least contradictory aspects of life in this country.

Shinto is the native, natural belief system of Japan that dates back millennia. It is not a single-god religion. It is a spiritual belief with regional trends and accents, and more than 10,000 deities found in natural features such as trees, rocks, rivers, sea, sky, mountains. Shinto shrines can most easily be identified by the distinctive torii gates that mark the entrance.

Buddhism became established in Japan in the Nara area in the sixth century A.D., arriving from China after having been established much earlier in India. Buddhism developed into an organised and managed faith in the eighth century when Nara (then known as Heijokyo) was the capital and the imperial family used faith as part of its governance of the nation. Since the time that Buddhism arrived in Japan it has always coexisted with Shintoism. The most striking evidence of this is that often temples and shrines share the same site.

Indeed, spirituality is part of daily and seasonal routine here in Japan. To oversimplify and over-generalise, Buddhism tends to be associated with closure, such as funerals. Just before midnight on 31st December we go to the Buddhist temple to ring the bell 108 times to mark the end of the year and the dispelling of 108 human sins. Within a few short hours, at sunrise, we are at our local Shinto shrine to welcome the New Year. Shinto shrines are also closely associated with other major starting points, such as marriage and welcoming a new child into the world.

Of course, many other religions are also practised in Japan; with Christianity the most prominent. While Christianity was banned in the late 17th century, freedom of religious practise was enshrined in Japanese law in 1873, and an estimated two million Japanese are practising Christians. No matter what your faith, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are an important component of Japanese culture, and well worth making time to visit. Some of Japan’s most beautiful gardens are on the grounds of Buddhist temples, and some Shinto shrines are among Japan’s most sacred sites.

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.