Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Hinamatsuri (Girls Doll Festival Day in Japan)

Hinamatsuri is a day for girls in Japan. On March 3rd, Japanese families who have a girl celebrate the growth and development of the girl. A set of beautifully costumed dolls, which belong to the girl is taken out for display, with decoration of blossomed peach branches.

A set of dolls consists of a pair of prince and princess (emperor and empress), ladies in waiting, musicians, and the list goes on and on, depending on the family's financial circumstances and the availability of space. Some families have an antique doll set, which have been passed down to generations.

When a girl is born, parents or grandparents buy a set of dolls for her. But many households don't have enough space to display two or three full sets of dolls. So that when the second or the third girl is born, the set tend to be abbreviated or smaller.

I always had weird feeling towards hinamatsuri, since my childhood. My parents weren't poor, but we belonged to humble working class. They didn't have enough time and interest to invest to this kind of vanity. But they still bought dolls for me and for my sisters, just because they were supposed to do so. The day wasn't particularly special or joyous.

I suspect that the custom of buying a set of gorgeous dolls to every single Japanese girl is rather recent phenomena, because many Japanese people were perpetually poor until late 1950s. Only wealthy families must have cerebrated the occasion with antique dolls which have been passed down to generations.

More than ten years ago, I went back to Japan around the time of hinamatsuri. I opened one of the closets in a very quiet house. There, I found my dolls. I remembered the busy and noisy days of my childhood, and I realized that I was deeply yarning for what I hated when I was growing up.

Monday, February 18, 2013


Every year at the beginning of January, as soon as stores open, frenzied Japanese shoppers run to buy a bag full of packaged goods called fukubukuro. Fukubukuro is a combination of the word fuku, which means luck and fukuro, which means bag. When it's translated, it would be some sort of lucky bag.

There exists an infinite number of fukubukuros. Some bags contain cosmetics, some bags contain famous designer name brand clothes, others games, depending on the stores. 

The prices also vary significantly, but most bags are from the $10 to $100 range.

The big catch is, buyers must purchase the bag without knowing what is inside. And no returns and exchanges are allowed, even if you buy a fukubukuro at a favorite name brand fashion store and happen to get a pair of shoes you absolutely can't wear. 

All fukubukuros are designed to provide good value to buyers. Most fukubukuros offer twice the value of the price, and sometimes even better. It's one of the convenient methods to control inventory for sellers. Therefore, every new year, Japanese rush to department stores looking for good luck and a better deal.

I am one of the people who never bought a fukubukuro. I was never lured by the idea of getting a good deal without knowing what I'm buying. I just can't understand the psychology of buying unknown items. I tend to think buying a fukubukuro is similar to buying a lottery ticket; a waste of money. 

I thought fukubukuros only exist in Japan, but according to the Japanese language wiki, Apple stores have sold "lucky bags" at the grand opening of flagship stores since 2004 in the United States. Bundled subprime loans are also basically based on the same idea that are behind fukubukuros, as Toyo Keizai Online, a Japanese magazine writes in its article. You just don't know what you are buying.

So, Fukubukuros may not be an exclusively Japanese idea after all.

Monday, February 4, 2013

It's a Finger Sack, Not a Cat Condom

Over the time, I found out that some standard convenient items in Japan are not existed in the United States. Horse oil I wrote about the other day is one item, and here is another. Finger sacks.

They may look like cat condoms, but they provide water tight protection to injured fingers. Your finger will not get wet while doing dishes, washing your hands, and taking shower, so that you don't have to go through annoying pains, and soggy band aides.

Sometimes they are also used to provide better grip when handling bills or turning pages. In Japan many cashers at grocery stores and bank tellers are using them. Because a finger sack fits tightly to individual fingers, it provides better grip than wearing gloves.

They are common items in Japan, and any discount stores sell a package at about $1.00 or so. I looked around my neighborhood drug stores, when I cut one of my fingers badly, but I didn't find any.

Last year when I visited Japan, remembering the painful experience, I purchased a package and brought it back to the United States. My husband looked slightly upset when I was using one. But it does the job!

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Horse Oil for My Skin

I have eczema since when I was in 20s. On top of that, excruciating patch test recently confirmed that my skin is allergic to nickel and fragrance, and possibly foaming agent of detergent or soap. I was prescribed steroid cream, and I must use it when the condition worsened, but I am scared to use it often.

I took off all of of my metallic accessories, including watch and the wedding band. I changed my soap and moisturizer. I ordered fragrance-free shampoo and conditioner, because all hair care products I found at neighborhood drug stores and health stores are scented in one way or another. Prevention is the best way to fight eczema and allergy.

I noticed a jar of horse oil, which I brought back from Japan. Horse oil is horse fat, which is produced from a small number of farmed horses for meat in Japan. Horse meat is not widely eaten, but considered delicacy there.

Pure horse oil and horse oil products are sold as skin care products. It has been Chinese home remedy from ancient times to cure burn, rash, or insect bites. The fat is purified and deodorized, so that products don't smell disgusting.

Even in the United States, some people use animal fat, such as pork lard or tallow on their skin. They praise for the wonderful effects. According to website of one horse oil maker, the ratio of saturated fat and unsaturated fat of horse oil and human oil are the same, therefore it's absorbed quickly and don't feel greasy at all.

I gave it a try on my itch, as I don't want to keep using steroid cream repeatedly. It seems to work, if I use it before scratching the area. I can also use it as lip balm, as I shouldn't use minty lip balm as well.

I will keep using it until it lasts, but one problem is that I can't buy it in the United States. No cosmetic company is selling something remotely close to it. If I finish the jar, I probably will use vegetable shortening or coconut oil in my pantry, until next time I visit Japan.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Food and Japanese

I saw a Japanese news report that among developed countries, Japanese calorie intake have been constantly low. On average, Americans take in 3688cal, Western Europeans take in over 3500cal, Koreans take in 3200cal, and even the Chinese take in 3000 cal. But the Japanese average is 2723cal.

I always knew this from experience. Many Japanese women who lament,"I have to lose weight." are actually thin as a pencil by American standards. They are thin because they watch what they eat.

Many foreigners complain about the amount of food served at restaurants in Japan. On the other hand, the Japanese are amazed by the huge amount of food served in the United States. One portion of Chinese delivery food in the U.S. can easily fill up three Japanese girls.

I remember that when I was in a high school, one of the girls in my class said, "I did really badly yesterday. I ate 10 potato chips!" I thought to myself, "Wow! I often eat a bag of potato chips."

I admit that I have a hearty appetite for a Japanese, and it's showing now. I still don't seem fat in New York, but I feel obese by Japanese standards.

This same news report further noted that Japan has a very low rate of wasted food. Every single Japanese are taught from the time they are young not to waste food, because farmers made great efforts to raise their crop. My grandmother said to me, "You will be blinded if you leave any grains of rice in your rice bowl." In Japan, food is served in a small portion, and people are expected to finish it.

When I walk over rice on the sidewalk in front of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in my neighborhood after it had a wedding ceremony, I cannot help feeling guilty when stepping on rice, because throwing rice is a cardinal sin in Japan. For Japanese, rice is sacred.

Recently, the Washington Post wrote an article about Japanese school lunch system. In each public primary and middle schools, lunch is made from scratch on the premises every day. Japanese children are eating delicious nutritious hot meal at school.

I often hear a word "shokuiku", which means food education. They believe that nutritious food educates children from the inside, so they will be able to make correct food choices when they become adults.

Japanese children eat vegetables, but rarely take sugary drinks, junk and pre-packaged food. But in order to make it possible, someone has to make the sacrifice to cook food from scratch every day. That burden of cooking is usually on women. 

It was more than 60 years ago when Japan was deprived of food. My parents generation in 70s remember the experience of starvation vividly, but the rest of the population including myself grew up in abundance.

In a way it is amazing that a country of gourmet and charismatic chefs eats healthy and maintains a decent calorie intake. I think it is due to the Japanese attitude towards food.

Almost all Japanese say a short word, "itadakimasu" before eating, and "gochisosama" after eating. They roughly translate, "I am going to eat now," and "Thank you for the wonderful meal," respectively.

But they are also an expression of the gratitude to all the people who made it possible to put the food on the table, including farmers, fishermen, food preparers, and the ones who earn money to buy food. Because of the efforts and sacrifices people make, the food must not be wasted.

A big challenge for Japan is to increase food sustainability in the country. Japanese food sustainability rate is extremely low. People consider grown and made in Japan food as safer than imported counterparts, and they command a premium price. People are willing to spend extra for those products, particularly for children.

Currently, produce are locally grown, but the ingredients of processed food is largely imported. Government has to answer people's demand, rather than answering to foreign trade pressures.

Here is one actual example from a Japanese restaurant in a northern island. The restaurant fines customers for not finishing meal, to honor the fishermen who brave dangerous conditions to provide the delicious food. The story was reported in Yahoo! News. My grandmother would deeply agree.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Oral Hygiene and Cosmetic Double Canine Teeth

Since I'm a 5-feet-tall petite Japanese, I seem to have a problem with American tooth brushes. The heads are gigantic and bristles too hard. Even when I buy tooth brushes labeled as "compact head" or "soft", they are still large and hard.

Big tooth brushes prevent me from brushing my molars. There are many similar size Asian women and Latinas in the United States. I doubt my jaw size is smaller than theirs.

Every time I go to a dental appointment, the dentist tells me "Don't brush your teeth so hard. Your gum line is receding." I bought a tooth brush labeled "soft" at a drug store, but the bristles weren't really soft.

Americans are known to spend money on their teeth. I wonder why they are using tooth brushes which are so harsh on their teeth and gums.

For a while I was ordering particular expensive tooth brushes with soft bristles on-line, but soon I started to buy tooth brushes in bulk every time I went back Japan. There are a wider variety of tooth brushes in Japan at a good price, from big and stiff to small and soft.

However, it doesn't mean that Japan is the progressive country of oral hygiene. They spend less money on teeth than Americans, and fewer people floss every day.

After the cosmetic correction
And as strange as it may seem to Americans, many Japanese men like girls with doubled canine teeth. Some girls even attach cosmetic doubled canine teeth. I assume that doubled canine teeth caused by small jaws, which are one of the signs of immaturity, appear attractive to Japanese men. One example of different aesthetics or psychology in different cultures.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Lack of Free Wi-Fi Service

The Japanese cell phone system is different from the rest of the world. The cell phones systems used in the United States are compatible with others all over the world, with the exception of Japan. This is a huge headache to anyone who travels to Japan.

Foreign visitors have two choices; either buy a pre-paid minutes cell phone or rent a cell phone at a Japanese airport. I decided to buy a pre-paid cell phone, because I visit there at least once a year. By doing this, I have saved some money over the years, and at least kept the same number every time I visited Japan.

You would think that even if the cell phone system is different, I could use a smart phone to browse the Internet, check emails, and talk by Skype if I could pick up a Wi-Fi signal. But free Wi-Fi is hard to come by in Japan. The only true free Wi-Fi I found in Japan was at the airport in 2012.

Starbucks in Japan claims "free Wi-Fi spot", but their Wi-Fi connections are only available for the customers of a particular cell phone company. Surprisingly, McDonald's, coffee shops, and other places don't offer free Wi-Fi at all. I saw the smart phone I brought from the United States was picking up numerous signals wherever I went, but found they were all password protected.

If you stay in a hotel, you are provided complementary Wi-Fi connection as long as you are within range, but are out of luck once you wonder further away. I was staying at an apartment where there is no Internet connection. In order to get connected to the Internet, I had to ask the next door neighbor for Wi-Fi access. Graciously, the neighbor gave me his password.

I've been dreaming of the day I could use my phone in Japan, and pick up free Wi-Fi signals, but it doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon.