Got Mikan?

What is the quintessential image of Japan at the New Year holiday?
It is of someone warming their legs in a kotatsu, sipping green tea, and eating a mikanwhile reading their New Year greeting cards.

Mikan are the tangerine-like citrus fruits that come into season right around now. They come in various sizes and types, but basically they are easy to peel--like a banana--and just sweet enough that you want to eat more than one at a sitting. Eating this harmless fruit used to be a hurdle that an intended bride was expected to leap over with grace.

Yes. The way a mikan was consumed was a potential deal breaker.

Pull off the skin in random patches? You lose.

Suck the fruit out of each section of membrane and leave the membranes in a disgusting pile on the plate? Tasty, but you'll get voted off the marriage market.

What you need to do is (Plan A) score the fruit in six sections down longitudinal lines, peel back the skin starting from the top--but leave each section connected at the bottom--and open it like a lotus flower. Section the fruit in half, quarters, then individual sections so that the fruit also spreads like lotus petals. Eat the sections slowly, one by one, leaving any pith or seeds or unwanted membranes discreetly in the middle. When you are done, fold over the orange skin and hide the mess in a neat little package.

That is accepted mikan etiquette.


If you want to be a star, look at the mikan as if it were a globe, score a single line around where the equator would be, loosen the top and bottom hemispheres with your thumb, then twist and separate two neat cup-shaped halves of the mikan skin. Pick out the fruit, eat it section by section, dropping the unwanted parts into one of the mikan cups. When you are done, put it back together, almost as good as new.


Happy Christmas Day

December 25, Thursday, and everyone is at work. Christmas is not an indigenous part of the Japanese culture--not even in the way pagan rites such as the decorated evergreen tree predate the religious holiday in western cultures.


We in Japan know how to cherry pick the good ideas from other cultures and adapt them to Japan. That is how we got the Christmas Cake.

Every father worth his salt brings home a specially-decorated cake on Christmas Eve.

The most basic type is a yellow sponge cake disc frosted with whipped cream and studded with fresh strawberries. You can get chocolate confections with reindeer prancing through dollops of creamy snow. You can get ice cream wrapped in merengue. You can get Yule logs that look so tree-ish you have to smell the bark to be sure it's chocolate. This year ours came from a French patisserie in Tokyo and was made of creamy pudding between layers of crisp pastry, surrounded in a deep layer of toasted almonds. Of course you can make your own, like my last year's coconut cake.


When cakes are being sold everywhere...
And look so luscious...
And the economy badly needs our support...

Merry Christmas!


Christmas vs New Year's (2)

Did I say daunting? Yes, I did, in reference to food. But even more daunting was the prospect of cards. The good thing was that New Year greeting cards are postcards. Simple. Basically yours for the price of the stamp.

The bad thing was that they are postcards. Blank. No design. No pre-printed message.

The wise people started writing theirs early, like in July.

The clever people came up with unique designs, often based on the upcoming year's totem animal. For instance, 2009 will be the Year of the Cow. They also balanced the formulaic greetings with interesting personal observations.

The talented people wrote theirs in hand-calligraphed sumi ink, or perhaps they carved fascinating/beautiful/humorous wooden blocks from which to print them.

My husband and I were none of the above, yet we were blessed with many friends that we wanted to greet.

Daunting, daunting, daunting.

Christmas vs New Year's

The quintessential year-end Japanese holiday is not Christmas but New Year's, and it tends to be solemn and quiet rather than joyous. I used to fear it, but now I've learned to embrace it. Perhaps because it's a lot easier to manage than it used to be.

The hardest thing about then vs now is that then, everything closed down for almost a week. Everything. From food stores to hospitals.

Imagine a whole week without stores. Sounds awful? Sounds good?

Preparing enough food for a whole week, with only the refrigeration of an unheated kitchen was daunting. But it was also do-able. And the result was a whole week without ever once running to a store.


The Emperor's Birthday

Thanks to the present Emperor's being born on December 23, we get a day off exactly when we need it. Right now. Today. In the midst of the rush to bring the year to a successful end.

The year-end gift-giving season in Japan is already over. If you have New Year holiday travel plans, they are already finalized. So it's not a day to run around on errands. It's a time out.

Happy Birthday! And thank you for the present.


No Visa Necessary for Some Travelers

This is from The Japan Times online edition, Dec. 20, 2008:

Butterfly migrates 1,600 km to China
KYOTO (Kyodo) A large butterfly found in mainland China was confirmed to have migrated 1,600 km from Japan, a Japanese researcher said Friday.

It is the first confirmed migration of a chestnut tiger butterfly, whose scientific name is Parantica sita, from Japan to China, said Hisashi Fujii, a lecturer at Kyoto Gakuen University.

In October 2006, a chestnut tiger marked with letters and figures on its wings was found in the city of Pingfu, Zhejiang Province, near Shanghai, Fujii said.

Later studies by a team of researchers from Japan and Taiwan confirmed it was the same marked butterfly as one released into the wild in August that year in Wajima, Ishikawa Prefecture, along the Sea of Japan coast.

Found in many parts of East Asia, chestnut tiger butterflies are known for making long-distance migrations.

They migrate south from fall to winter, but it is still unknown where they spend winters.

Fujii, 49, leader of the Japan Butterfly Conservation Society, said he believes China provides the main wintering spots for chestnut tiger butterflies.


If the Shoe Fits...

We saw the flying shoe on the news, followed by a certain president's trademark look of bewilderment. I wonder what part of "widows and orphans" he didn't understand.

Once upon a time in South America, Richard Nixon, as US vice president, was spat on in Venezuela by an angry mob quite capable of killing him. "I Like Ike" Eisenhower, then president, reneged on a scheduled visit to Japan after his press officer's car was mobbed and attacked by citizens of usually mild-mannered Tokyo.

In both cases, there was no denying any understanding of the message nor was there any gratuitous mauling of the messengers.

Speaking of shoes, does anyone else remember the USSR's Khruschev at the UN? Instead of getting mad, or looking bewildered, the US at the time pulled up its socks and got its act together. Could that possibly happen again?

Let There be Light

Lights that we need, lights that we don't need--drawing the line between them is not so easy.

It gets dark in Tokyo starting around 4:30. There aren't many streetlights, but there are many kids in the neighborhood coming home from after school activities in the cold and gloomy dark. A little brightness would be a nice way to welcome them home.

I decided that my string of outdoor Christmas lights is necessary light.


Al Gore, is that you?

The other day I was babysitting, playing with the two-year-old child in the living room of a brand-new, state-of-the-art apartment. No one but us was at home.

All of a sudden, a voice came out of the air.

"You are using too much electricity!" it said quite sternly.

I almost leaped out of my socks I was so startled.

"You are using too much electricity!" it repeated.

Clever lady that I am, I realized it was a robotic recording somehow connected with the electricity meter and not Al Gore. Still, it was startling. And true. I turned off the unnecessary lights in the apartment.

Who, I wonder, will turn off the world's other electrical excesses?


Hurray for Longitude!

You may have noticed the shape of Japan as seen on a map or a globe. Long and narrow, it stretches north and south. In longitudinal terms, it runs from about 35 degrees N to a little more than 46 degrees N.

And that's a good thing. If it stretched east and west, the only "bonus" would be some extra time zones. By extending from the sub-tropics in Okinawa almost to the sub-arctic in Hokkaido, Japan gives its people the advantages of a wide variety of climate options that affect everything from way of life to agricultural products.

There is snow boarding and skiing on fresh powder this very minute near Mt. Yotei in Hokkaido. You can still swim in the ocean if you are in Okinawa. Here in Tokyo, we are admiring the autumn colors and the slight nip in the air.

If you are a farmer in Okinawa, you may be watching your sugar cane ripening before the harvest at the end of January. If you farm in Hokkaido, you are probably eating buttered and baked potatoes from October's harvest and looking around for things to do until the snow melts next spring.

It takes about 4 hours to fly the length of Japan and less than an hour to fly across it. What a lucky break, geographically speaking.

You Saw It In Summer...

And now you can see Mt. Yotei (Hokkaido) in winter.