Why is sake in decline in Japan?

“‘Consumers in Japan perceive it as old-fashioned. Also, there is a lovely convention with sake that you never pour for yourself, the person you are dining with should pour, but I think part of the problem is that in the corporate world this has been abused so that the new guy always has to drink until he pukes because the bosses keep pouring. It has that association for some.’ Apparently, a few years ago rumours also spread… that sake gave you bad breath and was acidic on the stomach, which can’t have helped.”

Sushi and Beyond page 165

The other thing about sake is that is has religious meaning, being tied into all kinds of Shinto and Buddhist ceremonies such as weddings and remembrance of the dead. During those times, too, it is something that can seem forced onto you more than something you choose to drink. The other thing about the pouring for each other is that is adds a level of formality to proceedings, so much so that you can show a lack of all formality by drinking out of the sake bottle. For all these reasons, a relaxed evening out will always start with beer (preferably your own glass rather than a shared bottle).

Why do the Japanese eat meat?

…if they are supposed to be Buddhists?

This isn’t unique to Japan of course – try getting truly vegetarian food in Thailand!

One possibly relevant factor in Japan is in the animist collection of beliefs that is Shinto, plants are also gods and so it is just as bad to eat a banana as it is to eat a cow. For that reason, you traditionally thank/ apologise to all food for giving up its life for your nutrition with an “Itadakimasu” and a praying gesture. Another is that extremism in diet is just as frowned upon as extremism in religion (the reason why 99% of Japanese will respond to “Are you religious?” as if it’s an accusation), so cutting down on meat is sensible and cutting it out is just kind of weird.

The other possible reason is simply that Buddhist orders in Japan have always told their public what they want to be told, so that the priests can fill the coffers which they will pass onto their sons (marriage and children being another thing that isn’t traditionally associated with Buddhism!) Again, Thailand jumps instantly to mind as proof that money grubbing Buddhist priests aren’t soley a Japanese thing, though…

Why do only tofu salesmen sell by going round the streets with a trumpet?

Apparently ramen stalls also wander round blowing the same kind of trumpet (rappa), but I’ve neither seen nor heard such a thing myself.

In Turkey an endless procession of salesmen came past my flat making a selection of noises to tout their various wares. The noise made by vans offering to pick up sodai gomi (large rubbish which you would otherwise have to pay to have taken away) and election campaigning vans shows that it certainly isn’t a law against making noise that stops Japanese salesmen from doing the same. So, why only tofu?

Traditionally, tofu must be eaten on the same day, which would explain the need for a local supply. I also imagine that a tofu shop is not quite worth an actual trip to, unlike the local butchers and fishmongers which still seem to do surprisingly well. Still not sure that gets to the heart of the matter, though. My final complete guess is that making tofu is, like making ramen, something that you can do with a minimum of initial investment, therefore making it a suitable small business for someone who can afford a cart but can’t afford a shop.

Why do Japanese cows get massages and beer?

Expensive Japanese beef is all about the high fat content, which gives that marbled effect when raw. Some people believe that the massages and beer directly affect the amount and distribution of the fat, but according to Sushi and Beyond the main thing is just that the cows eat a lot of the right thing. The beer helps their appetite (having a couple definitely makes me want to eat!) and the massages help them relax and so, funnily enough, eat.

Why is teppanyaki more famous in America than Japan?

This is another one that had been worrying me for a while, and there is some kind of answer in my read of the moment, Sushi and Beyond.

Apparently teppanyaki was specifically designed for the Americans staying in post-war Kobe and demanding meat. Not sure that is a full explanation though, as shabu shabu was also designed mainly for foreigners to begin with but never really took off outside Japan.

It could just be the name that has less recognition in Japan. The main dish in teppanyaki (at least in Japan) is steak and when the Japanese go for suteeki that is what they call it, however it is cooked.

Why do Westerners call it “Kobe beef”?

Kobe is one the more famous places for Japanese beef (wagyu) but Matsuzaka is much more respected amongst people who really know their beef and the Japanese more generally, and anyway when non-Japanese say “Kobe beef” they are usually referring to expensive Japanese beef (with its marbled fat etc) in general.

I’d always wondered about this and finally found an explanation in the book I’m reading at the moment, Sushi and Beyond. The book is scattered with basic errors (including spelling the place Matsusaka most of the time, while once getting it right on the very same page), but until someone comes up with a better explanation, this is all I’ve got…

Because Kobe was the place where most Westerners first came across Japanese beef, being one of the major open ports in the Meiji era, the whole ingredient got named after the place, apparently. Teppanyaki was also invented in Kobe, so the fame of the beef might have spread with that way of cooking it.

The next post will also be related to teppanyaki, should you be interested.

Why is fried noodles called “yakisoba”?

… because “soba” means buckwheat and therefore (usually grey) buckwheat noodles, but yakisoba is made from ones made from wheat flour that are similar to ramen noodles. “Yaki udon” is made from udon (fat white wheat flour noodles), but yakisoba ain’t made from soba?? What is going on?? 

My family tell me that it couldn’t be called “yaki ramen” because ramen is the name of the dish made with a soup made from stock, rather than just the ingredient that is the noodles. Wikipedia also says that “yaki soba” can just be translated as “fried noodles”. There are, however, two perfectly good expressions for noodles generally, being “men” (as in the second syllable of “ramen”) and “nuuduru” (Japanese pron of the English word “noodles”). There general statement that “I want to eat noodles (rather than rice)” in Japanese is therefore “Menrui tabetai” and not “Soba tabetai”, which would be specific to those buckwheat noodles.

That would make the proper words for yakisoba “yakimen” (which has a nice sound to it, actually) or “yaki nuuduru” (which doesn’t).

Any ideas why it isn’t that but is “yakisoba” instead?

Why did soapland “massage parlours” change from their original name of Turkish baths?

The story about it being because of complaints by the Turkish embassy and leading to a competition by the industry to find a new name is well known. The book Sushi and Beyond has an interesting variation on it, that is happened “after the Turkish ambassador was taken to one by mistake and a diplomatic incident ensued” (page 18). As in the last post, I should say that the book is absolutely littered with basic errors. Nice story though.

Why the Japanese obsession with exams?

The historical reason for it goes back to the end of the Edo era when the class/ caste system (samurai, farmers, townspeople/ merchants, and untouchables) was scrapped. Understandably the knowledge of class didn’t disappear at the same time, and indeed it is still said that people hire private detectives to check that there are no eta (untouchables) or Koreans in their future son or daughter in law’s family. Prejudice against particular regions, gender and disability are also common, as is preference for people with a shared school, hometown etc. All this means that interviews in Japan could nicer approach any kind of fairness, even nowadays and certainly not in the Meiji period when the whole system was set up.

The other factors are:

– A Confucian trust in exams

– Not being allowed any hobbies, voluntary work etc while preparing for entrance exams, and therefore having nothing to write on a university application form

Why is chanko nabe (sumo wrestlers’ stew) usually fish and chicken?

After all, if you want to put on muscle and fat, meat has to be best!

According to the (admittedly fairly unreliable) book Sushi and Beyond, it is because four legged animals remind one of a defeated sumo wrestler down on the ground, and are therefore bad luck for rikishi.

More coming from that book in the next few posts.