If you believe Mr. Hallock, the Japanese celebrate Christmas like Valentine’s Day. You still have to go to work, but you get to eat chocolate—and celebrate young love! As a romance author, I felt right at home.
A few years ago, it was reported that record numbers of Japanese are forgoing marriage for career and lifestyle. They may have chosen “happy for now” over “happily ever after,” but they are still living and loving.
It is time for most of us to go back to work after the holiday, so here’s a little fun to start your new year right. This is part three of my Hallocks in Japan series. (Part one was Christmas in Japan and part two was Will Travel for Food.) But now I have a special treat for you: Hello Kitty!
Hello Kitty is a 1970s Japanese cartoon character that exemplifies kawaii, or cute culture, in Japan. And she is everywhere. I mean everywhere.
Not just on fancy, branded items, either—but there, for sure. As the photos below show, you can find (clockwise from top left) a Hello Kitty purse (which I did not buy), a Hello Kitty chopsticks trainer for children (which we got as a gift because how awesome?), a Hello Kitty Inoda Coffee store mug (normally I buy a Starbucks city mug, but not this time!), and a series of sake glasses (which I very much regret not buying at the Kyoto airport).
But that’s not all, folks. You can have Hello Kitty all throughout your home—even your medicine cabinet. Want Hello Kitty nail clippers? Yep, they’ve got ’em. Hello Kitty cutting board and placemat? Check out the bottom right corner. What about a Hello Kitty air mask to protect you in flu season? (About 10% of people I saw in public transportation wore such masks. Plain white ones, though, not cool Hello Kitty models.) Finally, don’t forget the fresh-butt-feeling you will get from Hello Kitty fruit-scented cleaning wipes. Butterfly approved!
Wait a second, Jen. Butt wipes? Let’s go down this My-Melody-rabbit hole for a moment. One of the most innuendo-laden promotions I saw in Japan was Lawson convenience mart’s soup bowl giveaway. Check it out:
Check out Hello Kitty and My Melody. Do they look a little, um, surprised? Maybe a touch . . . debauched? Compare this look to erotic Japanese manga, if you do not believe me.
What do these not-so-innocent cartoon characters have to do with miso soup bowls (the product being given away)? I have to chalk it up to being one of Japan’s fascinating contrasts: sappy, childish cuteness with an adults-only subliminal message.
Okay, okay, you want more soup, less sex? Then you want to go to the Hello Kitty tea house in the Ninen–zaka and Sannen-zaka preserved districts of Kyoto. There you can get Japanese curry and vegetables, served on rice shaped like Hello Kitty’s head! Or a Hello Kitty pancake. Or a Hello Kitty matcha green tea sundae. If gobbling up your cartoon hero does not sound delicious, then you are not a true fan!
I am being a little unfair since my own favorite, Snoopy, is almost as popular in Japan as Hello Kitty. It also has its own branded store and cafe in Nishiki Market, Kyoto. Only great restraint (and fiscal prudence) kept me from buying up the entire shop. Look at those adorable Charlie Brown mochi!
Soon, I will take a deeper look into Japanese history and show you around a few of my favorite places. And also sewer drains! Don’t forget the sewer drains. See you soon!
Mr. Hallock and I went to Japan for the food. I mean, yes, as mentioned before, Mr. H grew up in Kobe, so there was an emotional pull. But it was really all about the food. We eat a lot of Japanese cuisine at home: sushi (when we are feeling flush), miso ramen (the real stuff, not instant!), and tonkatsu (deep-fried pork loin on rice). Our goal for this trip was to expand our culinary horizons and stuff our faces. Mission accomplished.
Saloon. Gastropub. Tavern. Izakaya. This is the stuff! One small problem, though: we don’t speak Japanese. To be fair, Stephen recalled a surprising amount from his childhood, which helped in a pinch, but neither of us could read a menu.
Fortunately, our first real izakaya—Gassai Ekinan (above) in Himeji—had an English menu, allowing us to try some local specialties, like lotus root tempura. Yum! Emboldened, we searched for the best izakaya in Kyoto once we got there. And we saw one that looked amazing, but we could find nothing about it in English, either in front of the shop or on the web. Most places we ate at in Kyoto had at least a small sign that announced if an English menu was available. Not here.
Mr. H and I stared into the window wistfully for a few minutes, but then we chickened out and walked down the road to the Spring Valley Brewery. This was not a bad move, as the brewery had very good craft beer, but we knew we had missed out on something special with the izakaya, so we vowed to go back.
Big problem: we could not find it again. We walked the area around the Nishiki Market a lot, gradually expanding our route in concentric circles, searching for a place that we did not even know the name of. There is a famous documentary on Japanese Zen Buddhism called The Land of the Disappearing Buddha, referring to how the Buddha would give a talk to an audience and then vanish. Hence, we referred to our mysterious izakaya as the “Disappearing Buddha Bar.”
Our very last day in Kyoto, we tried one last time—and Buddha smiled on us! Not only did we find it the next afternoon, but it was empty. Usually, that is not considered a good sign, but we figured that the staff would be more likely to help out clueless foreigners when they weren’t swamped. We stood outside the place again for a minute, our nerve wavering, but then we thought: what the hell, let’s try it! Lo and behold, they did have a (limited) English menu!
The Disappearing Buddha Bar has a real name: Kokoraya Iseyacho, orここら屋伊勢屋町 in Japanese. The decor inside is full of traditional Japanese handwritten menu pages and vintage Japanese celebrity posters. For all its tradition, though, the music was totally unexpected: American 80s rock-n-roll, including Blondie, John Mellencamp, and more. A sign from the Amitabha Buddha in heaven?
The food was amazing, including the best tempura of the whole trip. We had earlier skipped the touristy place that charged $80 a seat for overrated tempura, so this find felt like cosmic timing. Sweet potato tempura is now one of my favorite foods in the whole world. They also had a “recommended sake” feature (for a set price), and we were totally game—times four! I have a new appreciation for a variety of Japanese rice and vegetable wines. Yum.
We left happy—nay, giddy. Our only regret is that we had to catch a plane too early the next day, and we could not return. Not yet.
If you want to really enjoy eating in a country, you must eat on the street. Or, when in Japan, in the basement of a supermarket. That is where all the food is, even prize fruits:
There are also take-home foods, from avocado salad to tofu-wrapped-rice (our favorite breakfast), to fresh-grilled meats, to sushi (yay!). The only drawback is a lack of a place to sit. Had there been open seating, we might have eaten in Daimaru and Sogo the whole trip. The quality of food was amazing.
And then there is old-fashioned fast food, like the seafood munchies available in Nishiki Market. Octopus on a stick? Yep, we’ve got that.
While our focus was mostly on Japanese cuisine, we happened to stay next door to Kobe’s Chinatown our first night, and we craved takeaway Peking duck pockets. Because why not? We also watched talented chefs hand-make soup dumplings, a specialty I remember from lunch with my sister-in-law in Shanghai. A good dumpling should actually burst with soup in every bite. Yum!
And there were always vending machines for when we could not be bothered to stop for coffee or beer or . . . farm-fresh vegetables? We only saw a veggie machine once, but it seemed like a great idea for food deserts in the United States. I don’t think the alcohol machines would be helpful in the same way, but they were convenient.
My favorite treat was hot coffee in a can. Japan has been coffee savvy since the post-war period, and Starbucks outlets are about as ubiquitous as Hello Kitty. But who wants to spend $6 on a coffee when, for less than a dollar, you can get a nice, hot coffee (or hot cocoa) at your convenience from a vending machine on every street corner—literally.
It was good that Mr. Hallock and I hoofed it five miles a day, maybe more, throughout each city on our itinerary. Not only did this allow us to discover the best stuff, but it was also necessary to burn off each meal in time for the next one. A perfect vacation.
After the passing of our beloved dogs, Mr. Hallock and I decided that we needed to travel before we adopted any more animals. (Well, just one pooch at a time. That’s our limit, I swear. I’ll let you know.)
Where to go for our first voyage? Japan! (Mr. H spent the very best years of his childhood living in Kobe, so there was a nostalgic element here. For my part, I just love the food.)
A Buddhist/Shinto country may seem an odd choice for Christmas, but it was perfect for two Americans seeking an escape from the heavy pressure of the holiday in the States.
Not that Christmas is any less commercial in Japan. It may be more so. They have accepted all the fun stuff—Santa, big meals, and general jolliness—without expectations or drama. For us, that was a welcome escape.
Mr. Hallock postulates that the Japanese view Christmas sorta like Valentine’s Day: you won’t get the day off work, but you have a good excuse to eat chocolate.
I wonder if the popularity of Christmas is due to Santa’s suit. In Japan, red is the traditional color of joy, happiness, and good fortune. White means truth and new beginnings. White has an ambivalent message, in fact, because it is the color used for both funerals and imperial regalia, such as the emperor’s tatami mat edging at the palace in Kyoto. Red and white are the two colors of the Japanese flag and the Santa-image-shaping Coca-Cola Company. Had Santa’s suit been another color (or soot-colored like the famous poem by Clement Clarke Moore), would it have still caught on?
There will be more Japan posts to come. Themes will include Hello Kitty, good food, sewer drains, and much, much more. I don’t know what is better than cool sewer drains, but trust me I’ll find it.