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Five Ways to Save Money When Grocery Shopping in Japan

It’s no secret that the Yen is weak right now. I’m by no means an economist, so I won’t speculate on the reason why. Still, it’s a common notion that if you’re coming from another country to Japan (a task becoming easier as COVID winds down), then you may feel like you have all the money in the world once you hop off that plane and get your currency converted. Saving money may not be your priority going in, but it should be.
The reality, however, is that Japan—like any country—is constantly providing opportunities to spend a little more than necessary. I imagine some of you are hobbyists that would have your wallet gutted by a trip to Akihabara, Tokyo or Osu, Nagoya. Yet—also like any country—Japan is replete with opportunities to save money every day.
My parents taught me that you become broke from nickels and dimes, not dollars: A canned coffee here, a set meal there—small expenses add up, leaking away your cash without you even noticing. Everyone knows not to spend too much on frivolities, so I’m going to share some tips I’ve picked up on how to spend less on the most essential cost of all, food spending.
Skip the Vending Machine

It’s an oft-repeated (and true) point of trivia that Japan has a frankly absurd number of vending machines. On my block alone there are seven that are publicly accessible! At a glance, vending machines seem like a major convenience, and a fun one to boot: Forget your water bottle? Vending machine water. Feeling groggy on a hot summer afternoon? Vending machine coffee. Need something to warm you up while waiting for a train in the dead of winter? Vending machine cocoa.
So what’s the issue then? Well, gingerly put, vending machines are a rip-off. They’re designed to help you out when you’re in a pinch, as aforementioned, but they have a premium tacked on because of that. Even the superb 100 yen machines have prices that eclipse what you’ll find in a supermarket. For example, the cheapest canned coffee on my block is King brand—the one with the bramble-bearded sea dog emblazoned on the can. It’s 80 yen, which is much cheaper than other machine coffees like Boss or Georgia. Despite this, King is the exact same type of canned coffee sold at my local supermarket for 30 yen!
A difference of 50 yen may not seem like such a big deal, but if you’re like me and are addicted to coffee, then a can of King every day would come out to ¥18,250 (about $126USD) over the course of a year!
Don’t Buy Beef

Japan is a small, mountainous country with a dense population. Farmland is scarce compared to large countries like China and the USA. As you can imagine, this drives the price of beef to a premium. This is painful to accept if you’re American, Brazilian, or from any other country that loves beef. Yet, if your goal is to cut down on food spending, you’re going to have to stick to fish and chicken.
Oh, and speaking of Brazil: If you are going to buy beef for whatever reason, check to see if you have a Brazilian grocer near you. I’m not sure what arcane witchcraft they use to conjure beef of such good quality at such a low price, but they’re invaluable if you’re making a dish that absolutely needs cow meat. Even still, supermarket fish and chicken should be your default for saving money.
That tip isn’t so hard to adopt, but my next one is: When you buy meat, buy it frozen. Although I absolutely despise cooking with frozen meat, I regularly shave off thousands of yen from my monthly food costs by doing so. Japanese supermarkets will usually have some nondescript bag of frozen assorted seafood at a low price, and these are surprisingly versatile: I’ve used them in curries, stew, yakisoba, fried rice, etc. with little hassle.
If You Can, Buy Close to the Expiration Date
Just about every Japanese supermarket has a section devoted to vegetables on the verge of going bad or with blemishes. When buying vegetables, always check this section first. Japanese customers seems to have higher standards for their produce, and you can use this to your advantage. For example, a bag of apples containing one with a small brown spot can in some cases cut its price down to as much as half!
Japanese supermarkets are full of items marked 10-30% down for seemingly no reason. Well okay, the reason is because they’re likely a day old, but as far as I can tell, a 10% off package of kimchi tastes exactly the same as a full price one. Plus, food spending a day on the shelf never killed anyone. As mentioned before, these small differences in price do add up over time.
Sales can also depend on the time of day: Japanese supermarkets will start marking prices down around 9:00pm in the interest of selling out everything. Employees will begin making the rounds with a price gun around that time, and you’ll often even see customers orbiting around the bento section in order to snag their favorite as soon as its price is marked down.
Physically Check the Prices at Each Store
This is one where you’re going to have to do some investigation on your own. Find every single supermarket, farmer’s market and home grocer in your area and visit them all in person. Check the prices of the things you buy regularly and compare them to the other stores you’ve been to. You may be surprised, as I was, that the most intimidating stores often have the best prices.
Also, while I’m not sure how conducive this is to immersing into Japanese culture, getting a membership to Costco can be a great way to save on food spending. Because they’re a wholesaler, you can buy obscene quantities of essentials like meat and veggies at rock-bottom prices. That said, Costco does require a yearly fee in order to join, so if you can’t visit regularly then don’t bother unless you feel homesick for the U.S.
Cook at Home
This is the big one. If you regularly buy set meals, you’re wasting money. This may seem obvious, but it astounds me how many expats I see living off of this stuff. Granted, set meals in Japan are delicious, but the convenience of buying a portable, pre-made meal comes (just like those vending machine drinks) at a premium.
Think you don’t have the time? I’ve timed the microwaving of set meals against my own cooking, and on average I only save about 10 minutes when doing the former (granted, the dishes I made were on the simple side, e.g. curry, sandwiches). That difference is small enough that even the most busy among us should be able to set some time aside in order to do it.
That isn’t quite the long-and-short of it though. The bigger reason to cook your own meals is because you will immerse yourself in Japanese culture. Food has always been an excellent showcase of a culture’s likes, needs, history, and identity. It’s one thing to eat Ramen, but it’s another thing entirely to go through the painstaking process of making it from scratch. That process is part of learning about a different people: The methods and means of their very sustenance. With a keen eye at your local store and some elbow grease at the stove, you can not only start saving money but also become more acquainted with what it means to be Japanese.

Don’t Fold That Resume! Thoughts on the Importance of Japanese Paper

Japan is paper country. I think I first realized this when I was walking through my neighborhood in Nagoya and came across a stationary shop. In my home country, stationary is so seldom used that an entire shop dedicated to it isn’t something you’re just going to happen by. I had never sent a letter or postcard before moving to Japan. By the time I was of age, e-mail (and the internet in general) was in widespread use for every facet of our lives.
Nowadays, not only do I send letters and faxes, I also frequent my stationary store to buy notebooks and pens to do things I could easily do on a computer. The reason? Because there’s just something, some intangible charm about the intentioned use of paper that can really envelop you in the cultural practices of Japan.
A Historical Context
The key distinction between how Japanese and westerners feel about paper is, as with many aspects of culture, tied closely to our respective history. Japanese paper has always had a religious significance when it comes to Shinto practices. The four-segment shide (四手(よんて)), a ceremonial paper streamer, can still be seen hanging in many shrines today, for example.
It’s easy to see how Japanese paper-processing methods of a more primitive age might’ve lead to the perception that a perfectly white piece has some special significance: Cream of the crop. The spotless lamb. The idea of stark-white objects being symbols of purity is present in many cultures.
Even in secular terms, a clean sheet of paper does have some special presence to it, doesn’t it? The first stroke of a pen or pencil is like the first step into unmolested snowfall—a blindingly white canvas that will record each success or failure perfectly as you have made them. There’s freedom and consequence in a blank slate. I digress.
In the USA, our founding documents were written on paper, and The Bible, which serves as the basis for many of our cultural practices, was at the time of our founding exclusively published on paper. So, why isn’t paper of equal importance to the States? Or France? Or South Africa? To us, paper is an object to be used. It didn’t matter on what medium our founding documents were written—just that they were indeed written, be it on parchment, clay, stone—what have you. The paper was a tool for us to communicate through and then throw away.
The Japanese mindset of old instead sees paper and structures it into something of aesthetic beauty, to appreciate it for what it is. Pantheism and Shinto practices are the origin of this concept: The idea that there is god, or more accurately Kami (神(かみ)) in everything is exactly why the traditional Japanese understanding of objects denotes that they have inherent value; because they are imbued with a specific spiritual significance. They are valuable, to some measure, in the same way that a life is valuable, regardless of what use it musters.

Kami of the Modern Era
It should be noted that these are generalizations that have largely been eroded by the march of time. For example, modern Japan’s secondhand market for phones is the cheapest in the first world, because the contemporary Japanese person, on average, simply doesn’t want to deal with the slight inconvenience of using something used. We are modern people and these are modern times. Paper is cheap as dirt and easy as pie to make. It isn’t realistic to expect one to hold each scrap of burger wrapper or throw-away envelope in so high a regard.
Yet, even in the current day, folding paper in Japan can be a taboo under the right circumstances. Now, a skeptic will be quick to point out origami, a Japanese art form entirely based around the folding of paper. However, Origami sheets are intended to be folded. Nobody would consider it impolite to do so. However, what about something not created for artistic expression, like a resume?
I can only speak from my own experience on this, but I’ve gotten work in America with a folded resume. The same wouldn’t happen in Japan. It’s as easy as that. The simple fact is that folding something that was intended to be given is rude under even semi-formal situations. Note that when you receive a receipt from a teller in Japan, it’s often given to you with both hands by that teller. If possible it should be received with both hands.
When you crumple it and shove it in your pocket, you’re silently saying to the teller that the thing they have given you is worthless. Even if you both agree that this is the case, the acknowledgment itself is rude. The teller will certainly not confront you about this, or likely may not be offended at all. If they are, they may not be able to articulate why if asked. It might just seem vaguely weird to them. There is history informing this unspoken rule. Ignoring this will never cause a scene, but will make you fit in less as a foreigner.
Another example would be business cards. It’s been noted at least a thousand times in a thousand different blogs, but for the love of God do not fold a business card or shove it in your pocket when you receive one in Japan. Again, the receipt of a card is like a gift, yet you showcase its ephemerality by shoving it somewhere unthinkingly. This breach of manners is made even worse by the fact that a business card is often a representation of one’s importance in Japan, as a worker may cleave some portion of their identity to their company (another concept that seems odd to a westerner).

A Japanese Mindset
One tip you’ve no doubt heard from Marie Kondo is: It may benefit you to, when you throw away something, thank it for the use it provided you. You may not believe even for a second that an ounce of Kami exists in said item, but it will help get you into the habit of realizing, as many Japanese do, that objects do not necessarily serve you, but that you cohabitate with them and are made of the same stuff.
It really is the details that sus out how well you understand someone’s culture. If I were to explain to someone from another country why the word “goober” is hilarious to me, I don’t know if I could, even with my arsenal of rambling English-major gobbledygook. I face a similar dilemma here, even more acutely since I’m an outsider looking in. To be honest, perhaps I’m American to a fault, because I never would have realized any of this if it were not first pointed out to me by my Japanese teacher in Arizona.
She said, quite firmly to me, that you do not crumple, roll, crease or tear a sheet of paper given to you while in sight of the giver. “It’s about respect for that which is not really yours.” Maybe that sums it up the best: Respect. In the hierarchy of Japanese society, even things below us command some form of respect, at least in an acknowledgment of their use to us. So please, don’t turn in a folded resume when you apply for a job on our job board!
(Yeah, I know it’s all digital here, you get my point.)

Surviving the 3/11 Earthquake in Iwate | With Matt

#InsideJapan #Episode180
On this episode of Inside Japan I’m speaking with Matt. Now we started off this podcast thinking we would talk about how he moved from teaching to starting a consulting business and working for a PR agency, but the story of how Matt survived the 3/11 earthquake was fascinating and we ended up focussing mostly on that. This is an amazing story and I hope it humbles you as much as it did me.

Some websites you can check out to support relief for Tohoku:

(Tohoku Live House Daisakusen)

Matt’s Features about 3.11

Video Podcast:
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Audio Podcast:

Listen and subscribe on iTunes, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts!

This show is proudly sponsored by JobsinJapan.com!
For the best place on the internet to find your next job in Japan, go to JobsinJapan.com.

My Experience Of Coming To Teach English In Japan With AEON

Teaching English in Japan is a great first job abroad, but with so many companies hiring, which is the best to choose? I chose AEON, and if I could go back in time I’d make the same decision again. Here’s why:
The difference of an Eikaiwa
There are numerous types of English teaching jobs where one can work in a daycare in a big city, a high school in the mountains, or at a branch office in a bustling suburb. AEON is an Eikaiwa (英会話), an English conversation school – Eikaiwas, of which there are many, are a place where students of all ages work primarily on spoken English rather than the rote memorization of grammar that is common in Japanese schools. The Eikaiwa is a great first step into teaching in Japan as it gives the teacher an opportunity to interact with students on a personal level and learn about your new area through daily conversations.
Getting established in Japan

Through AEON’s practiced, streamlined hiring process, my biggest concerns when preparing for my Japanese work life were saying goodbyes and choosing souvenirs for my AEON co-workers.
Once hired, I had a say in which region and even which school I would be placed in. I received a partial flight reimbursement, boarded my flight, and was promptly greeted by AEON staff in Japan. Along with the other trainees, the Japanese staff ushered us to our company provided training accommodations.
After initial training was completed, I was met by my manager at the train station nearest to my school and was guided through the most necessary tasks – legally speaking – of getting established in Japan: setting up a bank account and registering at city hall. On the same day, I was shown my furnished apartment and presented with a hanko, a stamp required to sign documents both at work and in one’s personal life. The apartment was chosen by AEON, with the rent automatically subtracted from my monthly paycheck. In addition, a hefty box containing a futon and basic toiletries curtesy of AEON quickly arrived at my doorstep.
A stable environment
Each Eikaiwa operates differently, with variation coming in the form of working conditions, teaching materials available, and how teachers gain students.
AEON is a national chain that is under KDDI, a Japanese tech-giant. Considered to be one of the higher-end Eikaiwas, AEON classrooms are typically in easy-to-access areas within well-maintained buildings with each teacher typically assigned to a single branch location.
Interacting with students and being able to share culture is highly rewarding, but some schools lack a wide range of materials that suit each students’ needs. Walk into any teacher’s room at an AEON school and it’s abundantly clear that as an AEON teacher, you will never want for class materials. When the need to create custom materials arose, I had the time during one of class-free, paid hours to do so. At many English teaching jobs, being paid for preparation time is not a given.
When choosing a job, compensation is certainly at the top of the list of considerations. English teaching jobs at AEON pays a consistent, hourly wage that is not impacted by daily student load. Some seasons are busier than others, but unlike schools that only pay for teaching time, an AEON teacher’s salary will not fluctuate. Additionally, both the teaching and management staff work to ensure that there’s a consistent flow of students and maintain a teaching/preparation time balance. Many other English teaching jobs put the responsibility to find and keep students solely on the teachers’ shoulders, which can significantly impact one’s paycheck.
What’s an AEON lesson like?

In one word: simple. Because AEON is partnered with KDDI, televisions project the school provided iPad screen. All of the slides and media used in nearly the all lessons one would ever teach is contained on the iPad. Through initial and follow-up trainings, teachers not only learn about the art of teaching, but also how to use AEON’s materials efficiently. Within a few weeks, the rhythm and timing of the lessons becomes second nature, leaving you – the new star teacher – bandwidth to interact with your students on a personable level while providing quality teaching. Homework, too, is assigned based off an intuitive system that is consistent throughout all materials.
AEON is not only a school, but a business. Therefore, staff meetings will include supplementary material sales figures and student registration numbers. Teachers are often required to pitch extra courses and materials to students. Sales may not appeal to every teacher, but many students at AEON are very serious about their English studies and appreciate the customized service as well as the additional opportunities to improve.
There are also numerous daily life perks that come with being an AEON teacher, including annual health checks, accompaniment to doctor’s appointments if Japanese is not your forte, as well as thorough guidance on paying taxes while in Japan. No matter what the trouble, I knew I could rely on my manager or co-workers for assistance. For example, where is the closest 避難場所 (hinan-basho, evacuation site in the case of a natural disaster)? Or, what do I do if I lose my key (AEON has a spare!)? The comfort that comes from having a supportive work environment with management trained to assist newcomers, even for those with Japanese language skills, cannot be overstated.
Saying Farewell
Leaving a cohort of co-workers and students is always difficult, but at least AEON makes the process straightforward and transparent. With the signing of a few documents, the handing over of a cash-stuffed envelope containing the final paycheck, and a final apartment inspection, it is off to the next adventure. AEON even has a detailed package detailing how to withdraw money from the Japanese pension fund.
Moving abroad can be a daunting task. AEON truly went above and beyond what other Eikaiwas offer to set up a comfortable life for their teachers. AEON provides both comprehensive support for the essentials, such as setting teachers up with an apartment, and therefore reduces many of the headaches commonly associated with moving abroad. For me, that meant I could spend my off time traveling throughout Japan, hiking, exploring with friends, stress-free. Knowing what I know now, if I had to do it all over again, I would absolutely choose AEON as my first teaching job in Japan.

Becoming a Funeral Director in Japan with Robert Hoey

When you first move to Japan, it might seem like everyone is in the same industry as you. But as you start to expand your network and meet more international residents, you’ll realize that people work a huge array of professions, some that you might not have even thought of back home. In fact, here it can even be easier to meet people in industries completely different to yours at expat gatherings and international events.
But there is one profession that you aren’t so likely to come across, and that’s an international embalmer and funeral director. That is, unless you happen to meet Robert Hoey. With embalming schools opening up in Japan, it has become more difficult for international workers to get into the profession, making it a rare find. But Robert Hoey has been working in Japan as an embalmer since 1993, and has never looked back.
Drawn to Compassion
It is probably not surprising to know that Robert hadn’t dreamt of becoming a funeral director as a child. When he was in high school, he was intending to study architecture. But a friend was doing work observation at a local funeral home, and after talking about everything they were doing, Robert decided to visit for himself.
“The people there were so caring and dedicated to their jobs, I felt that this was the place for me. Of course, it seemed a bit scary at first but when you really get to see what they do behind the scenes, it’s fascinating.”
Robert had been drawn in to the industry by its compassionate nature, and began his career in the funeral industry in Canada. He hadn’t considered visiting or living in Japan until 1993, when he came across an advertisement for a job as an embalmer here.
Robert had always loved travel and the idea of working abroad, so he went for the interview and got the job. He took a 3-year leave from the company that soon turned into much longer: “I fell in love with Japan and never returned to my job in Canada.”

No Japanese Embalmers
When Robert first came to Japan, there were no Japanese embalmers, and the only embalmers in the country were from North America. This made it easier for Robert to land the position, even without any Japanese ability. The company he joined had translators, and took care of any issues, so life was easy. Since then, an embalming school has opened up in Japan so it’s much more difficult for an embalmer from abroad to find a job here.
Of course, living in Japan for an extended period of time, Robert wanted to communicate with his Japanese friends more easily, so started going to Japanese classes a few times a week. He still feels that he hasn’t reached an advanced business level, but is able to get by with the help and understanding of his staff.
Starting a Funeral Company
Robert had been doing embalming in Japan for 24 years when he decided to start his own funeral company: “It wasn’t easy to give up a stable job, however, I wanted to follow my dream of owning my own company.”
Robert faced a tough time ahead, as he was working around the clock with his limited staff. He recalls a time when he was in the middle of embalming when he got a call asking him to pick up a body at 2am: “My staff were not in until the morning so I jumped in our vehicle and drove to the family home to meet the funeral director there and transfer the body back to my facility. Many people don’t realize it but we work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”
Middle-of-the-night calls are not infrequent, either. The company has a dedicated phone line for English speakers, so it’s not unheard of to get a call in the middle of the night from across the world to deal with a death in Japan.
The Only Covid-19 Embalmer in Japan
The company, Funeral Support Services Co. Ltd., has now expanded, so Robert doesn’t need to work 24/7. With that expansion they now do international repatriations, funerals, and cremations as well as embalming for the expat community.
They are also the only embalming company in the country that will provide the service for Covid-19 deaths. In Japan, when a death occurs from Covid-19, the norm is to directly cremate the body, which means the family is unable to say their final farewells.
But Robert’s company is experienced in dealing with contagious diseases, so their embalming services allow loved ones to properly say good-bye. Robert said, “To be able to do this for a family going through the most difficult time in their lives gives me great satisfaction.”
The Emotional Challenges
Robert told me there have been several cases where other funeral companies had turned away families when Covid-19 was the cause of death. In one such case, a man’s wife had caught the coronavirus, and he expected her to get better and be released. But after five weeks isolated in hospital, she didn’t make it. He hadn’t seen his wife in over a month, and if it were up to cremation, he would never have seen her again. Robert says “He needed to see her and we made that possible.”
In another heart-breaking case, an entire family caught Covid-19 and their 5-year-old daughter passed away. Everyone had to wait until they had recovered to give her a proper funeral, so embalming allowed them to do so.
Understandably, the job can be very tough emotionally, so sometimes Robert takes a step back to travel and take some time for himself or to connect with the community. He says “I often visit our colleagues in other countries in order to build strong bonds with them. It makes it easier when the death of a foreigner in Japan occurs. I know who to contact in their native country.”
Different Cultures
Robert had been a funeral director in Canada for five years before moving to Japan, but with Canada’s mix of cultures and international residents he was fairly used to accommodating for different requests.
Robert says that “Funerals in Japan are usually Shinto or Buddhist and they have an otsuya which is similar to the wake or visitation that we have in Canada.” But no matter whether the family is Japanese or international, the company is able to support any cultural requests a family might have. Rarer still, they can provide burial services in Japan “where 99% of the people are cremated”.
Overall, Robert has a caring and curious take on his profession, saying “it’s more interesting than it is challenging when it comes to providing a meaningful funeral for a family.”
While funeral directing may not be your dream job in Japan, Robert’s story goes to show that there are no limits to what you can do here. So Robert leaves us today with some sound advice: “Follow your dream and never give up. It takes a lot of patience and perseverance.”

Four Bad Habits You Need to Ditch in Order to Keep Improving Your Japanese Language Skills

The most necessary component to thriving in a foreign country is possessing good language skills. Japanese gets much fanfare for being a particularly difficult language, especially for English speakers. However, mastery of a language is all about consistency and the elimination of bad habits. Today we’re going to go through a few tips that will remind you of what mistakes you might be making while living in Japan that are negatively affecting progression in your new language.
Listening to Your Native Language Too Much
Nobody remembers learning their native language. As a baby, you start with an incomplete brain and no long-term memory, and yet within two years you have learned a new language. How does this occur? Well, because babies can’t speak, they spend all of their time listening. They hear Mom and Dad talking all day, the TV running, etc., so they begin to mimic the sounds they hear to the best of their abilities and iron out the kinks later.
As an adult, this process is still important to us. The less you hear Japanese, the slower you will improve. It’s tempting to simply load up a podcast on YouTube and listen to your native language as you jog, do the dishes, etc. Listening to another language requires your brain to always be working, which can be exhausting after a long day at work. To add to that, listening to foreign speech for hours on end can feel like boring white noise because of your inability to understand it.
However, when supplemented with immersion, studying and speaking practice, constant listening will facilitate your improvement little by little and unravel bad habits. The breakthrough of understanding a full sentence during passive listening is one of the joys of learning a new language anyway.

Staying Indoors
The summer months in Japan can be absolutely brutal. If you’ve never lived in a place with a lot of humidity, it’s tough to get used to the horrible sticky feeling that follows you like a specter in temperate climates. If your first inclination, once the temperature rises, is to stay indoors as much as you can, you may be inhibiting your Japanese practice.
When you’re indoors, the option to only speak in and listen to your native language is always there. You could use that time to study, sure, but only when you force yourself to go outside will you be fully immersed in another culture. Language skills are never developed alone.
If nothing else, smoldering weather makes, fittingly, for a good ice-breaker! The first full conversation I ever had with a native speaker (face to face) was with an elderly gentleman hitching up his bike just outside my post office. It was simple small-talk; a ping-pong game of irrefutable meteorological observations, but it was nonetheless exhilarating as a learning experience. If I had just stayed inside and fulfilled my instinctual bad habits to play Minecraft and Tekken in my air-conditioned pad, I would have missed out on that great memory.
Gravitating Around Other Expats
Yet another pitfall for continued Japanese practice is surrounding yourself with people who speak your native language. This is especially easy to do in Japan as an English speaker, since there are so many expats from countries like the USA and UK. As comfortable as it is to get sucked into this kind of friend group, it must be minimized where possible. At the very least, you will help yourself by conversing with native Japanese speakers to the same extent that you are to native English speakers.
If nothing else, encourage your English-speaking friends to converse in Japanese instead. It may be an awkward, embarrassing and tiresome experience at first, but once it clicks it’ll be enlightening to everyone involved. Plus, I find it’s actually easier to talk to somebody with a similarly limited vocabulary since you’ll likely possess most of their lexicon.

Shyness
This fact, while obvious on paper, can’t be repeated enough: If you don’t interact with people, you’ll never learn a new language. As nerve-wracking as it can be, it’s essential to talk to as many people as you can if you want to buildup your language skills.
Brass tacks, there’s no questioning the fact that starting conversations with new people in anything, even your native language, is nerve-wracking. Many of you may struggle with conditions that make socializing even more difficult than the average person. Socialization, however, is an essential skill in life.
So, think of talking to strangers in Japan as killing two birds with one stone: Even if you fail to get any good Japanese practice in, at least you’re taking one step closer to being more sociable. If you have the opportunity, strike up a conversation! You will make mistakes and embarrass yourself, because that is, invariably, the path to no longer making those mistakes.
In my experience, younger Japanese people (in their 20s, e.g.) are less chatty than the elderly. Also, as is the case in any country, people in the city are less friendly than people in the countryside. If you have trouble talking to people in the big city, going to a small town might yield better results for your language skills. Diving into some obscure corner of Japan can be a superior alternative to whatever rabbit path you may have inadvertently run for yourself.
For the sake of driving my point through, I’d like to relay an example from personal experience if you’ll indulge me: I once visited a tucked-away Kaisendon shop in Yokkaicho (Mie prefecture). Yokkaicho, no offense if you live there, is not the nicest area of Japan, but I took a gamble on the great looking eateries. When my wife and I walked into that establishment, every pair of eyes in the building looked at us. It was tempting to 180 out, but I stood there defiantly until a waitress ushered us into a crowded corner of the dining area—no bigger than my apartment, and because the establishment was full, we were seated at the same table as a few rowdy guys who were drinking at 3pm. As it turns out, they had offered their table specifically to share.
Perhaps the alcohol had lubricated them socially, because they started talking to us and showing off all the different self-service stations at the restaurant, as well as explaining aspects of the meal we ordered blindly. They joked and poked fun at us, but were warm in spirit and loved using the handful of English words they were aware of to their breaking point. Laughs and advice and opinions were swapped around, and we left that initially uncomfortable situation feeling not like outsiders or others, but like members of a family. Perhaps most pertinent to this article, I learned at least a dozen new words, and because of my experience I will never forget them.
Even if it’s not in your blood to enter into such a situation, your new language demands that you continuously work up the courage to kill your bad habits. Ultimately, you have everything to lose and nothing to gain by staying in your bubble, and yet you have everything to gain and nothing to lose by leaving it. Pop the bubble.

What’s the deal with Japanese school sports day?

If you work at a Japanese school, you will inevitably be invited to attend a school sports day. These events are an institution in Japan and while the schedule may well be difficult – many sports days are held on weekends or national holidays – the events can be a great opportunity to have some fun with your students and get to know the other side of them. Even the most rebellious student can become strangely amenable during sports day.
The basics of Undoukai
In Japan, sports day (運動会(うんどうかい)) is usually held shortly after the start of term in April, typically May or June in the cooler northern parts of Japan, although in the baking southern parts of Japan it may even be as late as September.
In many areas, the sports day is held on the weekend or a national holiday to ensure that as many parents can attend as possible. Don’t worry if this is the case at your school, as you will likely be offered a replacement day off on a different day of the week in exchange.
Cultural differences between Japanese sports day and Western ones
While most countries have sports day, the event in Japan has a couple of small tweaks that make it unique, as everything from the events to the atmosphere is different to most other countries. The small differences start at from the beginning of the event as the students march around their playground while a marching band plays a mixture of popular and classic music. This may well be accompanied by singing or dancing from all clubs, even the non-musical ones. Naturally, this climaxes with a rendition of the song Kimigayo (His Imperial Majesty’s Reign), the national anthem of Japan, and the raising of the Japanese flag.
While it may seem like fun for the students, this display is a serious affair and students are expected to practice for weeks before the event itself. For some groups, such as the brass band club and dance clubs, it may well be the culmination of the previous year’s club activities.
Typical Activities at Sports Day
After the introduction, the event itself begins. Many of the events are ones that most visitors will be familiar with such as track-and-field events such as 100 meters, 4 × 100 m relay, 100 m sprint, and long jump, as well as a tug of war. Teachers are often encouraged to take part in these events; however, don’t expect your students to go easy on you as this is a chance for them to show their skills to their coach and the whole school, and they are not going to pass up on that opportunity. Many a teacher will tell you of being lapped by a particularly keen to impress student.
While the athletics events are fun, a lot more fun is to be had at the uniquely Japanese events. One of the most popular of these events is a ball-toss game called 玉入(たまい)れ, literally ‘insert the ball’, which, as its name suggests, involves throwing balls or beanbags into a basket at the top of a high pole. Think if shooting hoops in basketball was a team rather than solo activity.

My personal favorite event was always 騎馬戦(きばせん), as it introduces an element of danger into the competition. This particular event involves a group of four students, one attacker and three supporters. One student carries an offensive player on their shoulders and the other two make a pyramid to support the main student and try to prevent them from falling. They will need all the help they can get as the goal of the game is to get the attacker off the carrier’s shoulders, often with a spectacular crash to the dirt!
Don’t worry if this all seems a little overly competitive. These serious events are often paired with more fun events that anyone can try their hand at. Lots of fun for all levels can be had with the ball dribbling races, obstacle courses, three-legged races, and sack races.
Enjoy your Sports Day
Although the sports day may seem a bit weird, as a Brit I am well aware that some of the British traditions may be just as strange to Japanese children. Perennial British favorites such as egg and spoon races, horseshoes, and wheelbarrow races would likely be as baffling to Japanese students as their events were to me. Instead of focusing on the differences, it is much better to simply celebrate the hilarity, whilst preparing yourself to fight for every point in the 玉入れ and meter in the relay race.

Matthew Coslett
After his 6 month stay got extended to 6 years, Matthew decided just to stay. As well as writing about his beloved Kansai, he spends hours in the middle of nowhere looking for wildlife and searching for the parts of the city most people ignore.More articles by Matthew Coslett

Working as a Freelance Architect in Japan with Elisa Cecchetti

Getting things off the ground as any kind of freelancer can be an interesting challenge. There are obstacles and pitfalls, as well as highlights and perks, but ultimately the leap of faith into working for yourself and relying on yourself for your next pay check can be the biggest obstacle of all.
For Elisa Cecchetti, she knew early on that she couldn’t keep doing the same work day in, day out, and she wanted to use her creativity to its fullest by working on a variety of projects as a freelance architect. The fact that it all panned out in Japan just added another layer of adventure to her path to creative freedom.
From Rome to Tokyo
Elisa’s journey began in Rome, Italy, where she was studying architecture at university.
During her time there, a devastating earthquake hit central Italy in 2016, collapsing villages and taking hundreds of lives. This disaster fueled Elisa’s interest in anti-seismic architecture, so that she could help prevent the destruction caused by such earthquakes in the future.
Understandably, there’s a lot to be learnt from Japan in the field of earthquake-proofing, so after finishing her degree, Elisa took part in an Italian competition called Torno Subito. There, she focused her efforts on a project that looked at Italian and Japanese anti-seismic architecture.
She won the competition and ended up going back and forth between Japan and Italy for the competition and subsequent work, before coming back to Japan for good in October 2019.
The Freedom of Freelance
When she moved to Japan, Elisa was employed with an interior design company, so she was in Japan on a work (Engineer/Specialist in Humanities/International Services) visa. However, after about a year of this work, she felt restricted by her visa and wanted to try her hand at freelancing.
She hired a lawyer for the process, and was repeatedly told that it would be very difficult for her to get a self-employment visa as she was new to Japan and didn’t speak Japanese. But with some help from the design company who still works with her now, she managed to get the visa she wanted. Starting with one firm and building up a relationship over a year seemed key to her success here.
Now she works on a project basis, and is able to work with several different clients on a variety of interesting jobs. She manages her time and her work herself, and has the freedom to pursue her passion.
Elisa does all kinds of architecture, ranging from interior design all the way through to designing entire buildings from scratch. Most of her projects are in the interior design space, but developing relationships with clients and building her network is slowly leading to other large-scale projects, such as designing an entire villa from scratch in Miyakojima.
While many of her architect friends back home are working for large interior design companies, they have ended up in jobs where they do the same thing every day, which is not what Elisa wants. This way, she is able to do a variety of projects, as well as continue with her artistic side, creating paintings and doing body paints to express the true nature of herself and her subjects.
Back in Italy, she was offered a job at a top architectural firm, but she declined. Her friends all told her she was crazy, but she simply said “I want to get out of my comfort zone.”

Japanese and International Clients
While Elisa’s Japanese level is only conversational at the moment, she is always trying to push herself to keep on improving, and hopefully improve her business relationships in the process. She says “If you don’t push yourself, then you will always remain in the same place.”
Elisa works with both international and Japanese clients, and sometimes the cultural barrier can prove quite a challenge. There are times when Elisa wants to do something innovative, or implement a technique that is less heard of in Japan, but the client might be hesitant or worried about rocking the boat. In those situations, Elisa has to walk the fine line of being encouraging without being overly pushy, and often finds herself simply repeating the idea to see if it sticks. If it doesn’t, she will try to find a compromise, sacrificing one idea in order to keep another that might be more important to the design.
But it’s not all rigidity and rule-keeping. When Elisa was tasked with redesigning the Cybernet Systems HQ in Tokyo alongside another architect, the client was very flexible and interested in her ideas. She was able to recreate what was once a dreary office space into something much more inviting, all the while keeping the employees’ well-being in mind.
To lighten the mood and create an encouraging space, natural forms and objects are essential, so Elisa made sure to incorporate plants and natural forms into the space. But she also places importance on sustainability, and strives to upcycle or recycle any objects she can with new projects. Many will assume the old furniture is nothing but rubbish, but Elisa works hard to figure out a way to re-use the items.

There are a lot of differences between Italian and Japanese architecture too. In many ways, these differences prove to be a learning experience for Elisa, but sometimes there are things that surprise her. For example, in Italy there are no apartments with only north-facing windows, as everyone must have access to natural light. In Japan, there is no such rule, but, still thinking of everyone’s well-being, Elisa strives to involve as much natural light in her designs as possible.
Getting Clients
When it comes to getting new clients, Elisa says that the key is to start small, and start building up your network: “You go out and you meet some people and you talk about yourself. You show your projects and then more and more opportunities appear.”
For her Miyakojima project, she started off doing some interior design for a client, and after talking more with him, she ended up being tasked with designing the entire villa from zero. By demonstrating her skills in one aspect, she was able to land a bigger project.
The same thing happened with a shop in Tokyo. First, she was giving interior design suggestions to the owner, and the next thing she knew, she was asked to redesign it in its entirety.
By slowly working on smaller projects while growing her network, Elisa is starting to build a reputation for herself, all the while working on new and exciting projects without anything getting stale.
There are no typical days for Elisa, as is the case with most freelance work. Sometimes she will work in a café, sometimes she will meet with clients, or design in her studio, and other times she will trawl the recycle shops to find inspiration and interesting materials for her projects.
Advice for Budding Architects
In the end, everyone is different. While some people may be more suited to the structure and stability of a company, others revel in the challenge of deciding their own schedule and creating their own projects. It’s important to understand what type you are before diving into freelancing.
Elisa says that it’s really interesting working in Japan as an architect because everything is so different to back home. You can learn a lot of new things that might not work in Europe or America. Of course, that’s particularly true for the field of anti-seismic architecture, something that Japan is well-versed in.
Finally, she mentioned that you need to follow your passion: “Some people are just scared. Before coming to Japan, everyone has a dream, right?” She mentioned that some people wind up in any old job in Japan and just get used to it, and settle down, quickly forgetting what they wanted to do in the first place because it’s out of their comfort zone. But Elisa says to “Focus on the dream.”
Even when things seem tough, and it would be much easier to stick to your regular nine to six job at a regular company, if there’s something bigger you envision yourself doing, go for it. Figure out your path, and find a way to your goal. Who knows, maybe you’ll be designing the next Miyakojima villa before you know it!

Understanding Maternity Leave in Japan

Having a baby is an emotional rollercoaster. The waves of happiness are often interrupted by panic. There is so much to organize! And being pregnant in another country can bring a whole new level of anxiety.
If you are planning to have a baby in Japan, learn more about your maternity rights here.
Maternity leave in Japan is called sanzen sango kyūgyō(産前産後休業(さんぜんさんごきゅうぎょう)). It is separated between two parts:

Prenatal period – 6 weeks before he expected due date.
Post-natal period – 8 weeks after the birth.

Note! Calculating the exact cost of maternity leave can be difficult, as different prefectures have different regulations and allowances. It is best to visit your local city hall or prefecture website before budgeting!

Do I qualify to take maternity leave in Japan?
The right to maternity leave is available to all working parents. This is true even if they are part-time or full-time workers.
As quoted by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare “The law prohibits employers from dismissing or otherwise treating workers disadvantageously by reason of their pregnancy, childbirth, or making application for or taking maternity leave, child care leave, etc”. This right is extended to foreigners working in Japan.
It is illegal in Japan to dismiss, treat unfairly or change the contract of any employee based on pregnancy, childbirth, childcare reasons.
How many days maternity leave can I take?

Maternity leave begins 42 days before the birth.
Maternity leave finishes 56 days after the birth.

If the baby is overdue, the number of days between the due date and birth will be added to maternity leave.
It is a rarity, but some Japanese companies offer a longer maternity period. Be sure to check with your employer when discussing your options.
How much does childbirth cost in Japan?
The Japanese health insurance system can be a little confusing. But luckily all mothers can receive a one-time lump sum for childbirth, whatever their health insurance coverage. This is called shussan ikuji ichijikin(出産育児一時金(しゅっさんいくじ いちじきん)). It is designed to help expectant parents cover the medical expenses of giving birth. The amount of this payment varies depending on where you give birth. You may receive ¥420,000 if the clinic or hospital is part of the Japan Obstetric Compensation System. If not, the amount will be ¥404,000.
If your childbirth expenses are lower than the Childbirth and Childcare Lump-sum Grant amount, you can also apply to receive the difference. Win!
Be mindful that if you have health insurance, you may be covered for the costs of more negative outcomes, such as stillbirth, or abortion within 85 days of the pregnancy.
Maternity Leave Allowance
If you are covered by your employer’s health insurance, you may be entitled to childbirth allowance. This is to help compensate the mother for any loss of income due to childbirth.
Please note, this is not available if you are self-employed or unemployed and covered by national health insurance.

How much will I be paid for maternity leave?
For working women, maternity leave allowance in Japan is about 2/3 of her normal monthly salary.
This is how it is calculated:

Average monthly salary for 12 months before the start of leave ÷ 30 days × 2/3

If you have been insured for under 12 months, you be paid either of the following, depending on which is less:

Your average monthly salary over the most recent continuous months before starting maternity leave. Or
Society’s average monthly salary for insured people as of September 30th of the previous fiscal year.

How to apply for maternity leave allowance.
If you have insurance, you can apply for maternity allowance through this application process. As typical of Japanese bureaucracy, you need to include a lot of documents! For example, your identity verification documents and a written note from your doctor or midwife.
Childcare leave in Japan
Childcare leave is for any adult in a ‘child-parent’ relationship. This includes what we often call ‘paternity leave’ in the west. Childcare leave is also permitted for adoptive and foster parents too.
You can start childcare leave anytime between your child’s birth date, to the day your child turns fourteen months. However, this may be extended to 24 months if the child cannot be placed in a nursery school.
Childcare leave in Japan
Childcare leave starts the day after the maternity leave period ends. It will continue until the baby’s first birthday.
If you are worried about the cost of supporting your child, Japan does offer childcare allowance. You may be entitled to 15,000 yen per month for children under three years old.
As mentioned at the start, your prefecture may offer a range of subsidies or have different regulations for applying for allowances. For example, Kanagawa has some excellent resources about maternity, conveniently translated into English. Be sure to check your local sources for more information.
Are you looking to return to work after maternity leave? Need something a little less 9 to 5, and more flexible? View our latest part-time jobs in Japan to find a work-life balance that suits you.

How sake became a cultural institution in Japan

A veritable cultural institution in Japan, sake is far more than just a drink. It is an ongoing and living manifestation of rich history and retained tradition stretching back for centuries. Let’s explore sake, past and present, to see what makes it so special within Japanese society.
Perfect Preparation
Sake in Japanese can refer to any type of alcohol, while what we refer to as “sake” in English is generally termed nihonshu in Japanese. Sake invariably consists of four key elements: rice, koji (a kind of fungus that helps convert rice starch to sugar), water, and yeast. The rice is milled in order to remove an excess layer of bran, and this treated rice is mixed with water and koji. Approximately four fifths of sake is water, so the quality of the water used is highly important. The amount of time the sake spends fermenting varies depending on what sort of sake is being made, but typically lasts from between 25 and 30 days.
Sake’s alcohol content typically hovers in the region of 15%, making it significantly stronger than beer and a little stronger than wine, while its colour tends to vary between virtually transparent to having a slight yellow hue. Sake is also naturally low in acidity, contributing to its agreeable taste to even the newest of enthusiasts.
The production of sake commences with the milling (also known as polishing) of rice collected from the harvest. Rice used in sake consists of larger grains than the kind of rice that ends up on dinner tables, and is polished far more thoroughly than the latter as well. The more polishing involved, the higher designation of sake emerges at the end of the process. These designations include Honjozo, Futsu, Tokubetsu, Ginjo, and Daiginjo. Each of these have their own unique characteristics that can be appreciated individually and compared academically.
Junmai is a special type of sake which is made exclusively from pure rice and water, and has a greater percentage of rice solids than its counterparts. It is generally served at special occasions, such as weddings and other festive events. The kind of sake that you will come to love the most will depend on your own personal tastes, so don’t be afraid to experiment until you come across a variety that speaks to you.

A Storied History
Rice has been used in the production of alcoholic beverages across Asia for millenia. The origins of sake can be traced back to around 2,500 years ago, when rice cultivation was first introduced to Japan from China. By the 8th century it had become the drink of choice at the imperial court, and in the centuries following it spread across the land. Authorities imposed a new tax on sake production in the 14th century, which resulted in the establishment of breweries called kura.
The brewing of sake exploded in popularity during the Meiji Era, with many wealthy landowners taking advantage of the improvements in technology brought about by Japan’s opening to the West. These mechanical innovations further improved during the 20th century, and by the 1980s sake was being enjoyed everywhere from Paris to New York thanks to the country’s postwar economic boom. Nowadays anyone in Japan can easily pick up a bottle at their local convenience store, enjoy a drink with friends at a cosy izakaya, or perhaps even venture out to a dedicated sake bar.
Today sake is readily and easily available in all budget ranges, and there are more varieties and styles to be sampled than ever before. There are well over 1,000 sake breweries dotted the length and breadth of Japan, with Niigata Prefecture having the largest number followed by Nagano and Hyogo. Those who work in sake breweries are referred to as Kuraibito, and the person in charge of the whole process is the Toji. Such professions are held in high societal regard, and are often passed down from generation to generation. It is often painstakingly intense and focused work, but the workers find that the finished product is more than worth the effort.
How to Drink Sake Like a Local
The small cups from which sake is traditionally drunk are called choko, but it is also common to drink from a masu. This is a square box made of wood that was originally used as a measurement of rice before Japan switched to the metric system in the final years of the 19th century. There is a much-loved custom in which a glass is placed within a masu and the sake is poured until both vessels overflow. Cups are typically filled from a jug known as a tokkuri. At more formal occasions it is polite not to fill your own glass, but allow those around you to do it on your behalf. This custom is not rigidly held at more relaxed gatherings.
In the past, sake would have traditionally been served warm. These days it is enjoyed chilled, hot, or at room temperature based on the time of the year and the personal preferences of the drinker. Sake also pairs extremely well with food, both Japanese and Western. Its smooth and somewhat sweet taste means it works in tandem with everything from seafood to spaghetti. If that were not enough, sake itself can be used as an ingredient in cooking. It is often used in marinades for fish and meat as a means of both tenderising and reducing their odour.

A Continuing Legacy
Sake has historically played an integral role within Japanese culture and society, especially within the context of religious rituals, both Shinto and Buddhist, as well as during festival celebrations. The consumption of sake during the former served as a means by which priests were able to interact with the divine, while also serving as a form of purification. Sake’s enduring significance for Japan is perhaps best illustrated by the consumption of toso, a spiced variety of sake associated with medical properties, during Japanese New Year celebrations. It is enjoyed by young and old alike, bridging the gap between generations and securing the future of Japan’s national drink.

How sake became a cultural institution in Japan

A veritable cultural institution in Japan, sake is far more than just a drink. It is an ongoing and living manifestation of rich history and retained tradition stretching back for centuries. Let’s explore sake, past and present, to see what makes it so special within Japanese society.
Perfect Preparation
Sake in Japanese can refer to any type of alcohol, while what we refer to as “sake” in English is generally termed nihonshu in Japanese. Sake invariably consists of four key elements: rice, koji (a kind of fungus that helps convert rice starch to sugar), water, and yeast. The rice is milled in order to remove an excess layer of bran, and this treated rice is mixed with water and koji. Approximately four fifths of sake is water, so the quality of the water used is highly important. The amount of time the sake spends fermenting varies depending on what sort of sake is being made, but typically lasts from between 25 and 30 days.
Sake’s alcohol content typically hovers in the region of 15%, making it significantly stronger than beer and a little stronger than wine, while its colour tends to vary between virtually transparent to having a slight yellow hue. Sake is also naturally low in acidity, contributing to its agreeable taste to even the newest of enthusiasts.
The production of sake commences with the milling (also known as polishing) of rice collected from the harvest. Rice used in sake consists of larger grains than the kind of rice that ends up on dinner tables, and is polished far more thoroughly than the latter as well. The more polishing involved, the higher designation of sake emerges at the end of the process. These designations include Honjozo, Futsu, Tokubetsu, Ginjo, and Daiginjo. Each of these have their own unique characteristics that can be appreciated individually and compared academically.
Junmai is a special type of sake which is made exclusively from pure rice and water, and has a greater percentage of rice solids than its counterparts. It is generally served at special occasions, such as weddings and other festive events. The kind of sake that you will come to love the most will depend on your own personal tastes, so don’t be afraid to experiment until you come across a variety that speaks to you.

A Storied History
Rice has been used in the production of alcoholic beverages across Asia for millenia. The origins of sake can be traced back to around 2,500 years ago, when rice cultivation was first introduced to Japan from China. By the 8th century it had become the drink of choice at the imperial court, and in the centuries following it spread across the land. Authorities imposed a new tax on sake production in the 14th century, which resulted in the establishment of breweries called kura.
The brewing of sake exploded in popularity during the Meiji Era, with many wealthy landowners taking advantage of the improvements in technology brought about by Japan’s opening to the West. These mechanical innovations further improved during the 20th century, and by the 1980s sake was being enjoyed everywhere from Paris to New York thanks to the country’s postwar economic boom. Nowadays anyone in Japan can easily pick up a bottle at their local convenience store, enjoy a drink with friends at a cosy izakaya, or perhaps even venture out to a dedicated sake bar.
Today sake is readily and easily available in all budget ranges, and there are more varieties and styles to be sampled than ever before. There are well over 1,000 sake breweries dotted the length and breadth of Japan, with Niigata Prefecture having the largest number followed by Nagano and Hyogo. Those who work in sake breweries are referred to as Kuraibito, and the person in charge of the whole process is the Toji. Such professions are held in high societal regard, and are often passed down from generation to generation. It is often painstakingly intense and focused work, but the workers find that the finished product is more than worth the effort.
How to Drink Sake Like a Local
The small cups from which sake is traditionally drunk are called choko, but it is also common to drink from a masu. This is a square box made of wood that was originally used as a measurement of rice before Japan switched to the metric system in the final years of the 19th century. There is a much-loved custom in which a glass is placed within a masu and the sake is poured until both vessels overflow. Cups are typically filled from a jug known as a tokkuri. At more formal occasions it is polite not to fill your own glass, but allow those around you to do it on your behalf. This custom is not rigidly held at more relaxed gatherings.
In the past, sake would have traditionally been served warm. These days it is enjoyed chilled, hot, or at room temperature based on the time of the year and the personal preferences of the drinker. Sake also pairs extremely well with food, both Japanese and Western. Its smooth and somewhat sweet taste means it works in tandem with everything from seafood to spaghetti. If that were not enough, sake itself can be used as an ingredient in cooking. It is often used in marinades for fish and meat as a means of both tenderising and reducing their odour.

A Continuing Legacy
Sake has historically played an integral role within Japanese culture and society, especially within the context of religious rituals, both Shinto and Buddhist, as well as during festival celebrations. The consumption of sake during the former served as a means by which priests were able to interact with the divine, while also serving as a form of purification. Sake’s enduring significance for Japan is perhaps best illustrated by the consumption of toso, a spiced variety of sake associated with medical properties, during Japanese New Year celebrations. It is enjoyed by young and old alike, bridging the gap between generations and securing the future of Japan’s national drink.

How sake became a cultural institution in Japan

A veritable cultural institution in Japan, sake is far more than just a drink. It is an ongoing and living manifestation of rich history and retained tradition stretching back for centuries. Let’s explore sake, past and present, to see what makes it so special within Japanese society.
Perfect Preparation
Sake in Japanese can refer to any type of alcohol, while what we refer to as “sake” in English is generally termed nihonshu in Japanese. Sake invariably consists of four key elements: rice, koji (a kind of fungus that helps convert rice starch to sugar), water, and yeast. The rice is milled in order to remove an excess layer of bran, and this treated rice is mixed with water and koji. Approximately four fifths of sake is water, so the quality of the water used is highly important. The amount of time the sake spends fermenting varies depending on what sort of sake is being made, but typically lasts from between 25 and 30 days.
Sake’s alcohol content typically hovers in the region of 15%, making it significantly stronger than beer and a little stronger than wine, while its colour tends to vary between virtually transparent to having a slight yellow hue. Sake is also naturally low in acidity, contributing to its agreeable taste to even the newest of enthusiasts.
The production of sake commences with the milling (also known as polishing) of rice collected from the harvest. Rice used in sake consists of larger grains than the kind of rice that ends up on dinner tables, and is polished far more thoroughly than the latter as well. The more polishing involved, the higher designation of sake emerges at the end of the process. These designations include Honjozo, Futsu, Tokubetsu, Ginjo, and Daiginjo. Each of these have their own unique characteristics that can be appreciated individually and compared academically.
Junmai is a special type of sake which is made exclusively from pure rice and water, and has a greater percentage of rice solids than its counterparts. It is generally served at special occasions, such as weddings and other festive events. The kind of sake that you will come to love the most will depend on your own personal tastes, so don’t be afraid to experiment until you come across a variety that speaks to you.

A Storied History
Rice has been used in the production of alcoholic beverages across Asia for millenia. The origins of sake can be traced back to around 2,500 years ago, when rice cultivation was first introduced to Japan from China. By the 8th century it had become the drink of choice at the imperial court, and in the centuries following it spread across the land. Authorities imposed a new tax on sake production in the 14th century, which resulted in the establishment of breweries called kura.
The brewing of sake exploded in popularity during the Meiji Era, with many wealthy landowners taking advantage of the improvements in technology brought about by Japan’s opening to the West. These mechanical innovations further improved during the 20th century, and by the 1980s sake was being enjoyed everywhere from Paris to New York thanks to the country’s postwar economic boom. Nowadays anyone in Japan can easily pick up a bottle at their local convenience store, enjoy a drink with friends at a cosy izakaya, or perhaps even venture out to a dedicated sake bar.
Today sake is readily and easily available in all budget ranges, and there are more varieties and styles to be sampled than ever before. There are well over 1,000 sake breweries dotted the length and breadth of Japan, with Niigata Prefecture having the largest number followed by Nagano and Hyogo. Those who work in sake breweries are referred to as Kuraibito, and the person in charge of the whole process is the Toji. Such professions are held in high societal regard, and are often passed down from generation to generation. It is often painstakingly intense and focused work, but the workers find that the finished product is more than worth the effort.
How to Drink Sake Like a Local
The small cups from which sake is traditionally drunk are called choko, but it is also common to drink from a masu. This is a square box made of wood that was originally used as a measurement of rice before Japan switched to the metric system in the final years of the 19th century. There is a much-loved custom in which a glass is placed within a masu and the sake is poured until both vessels overflow. Cups are typically filled from a jug known as a tokkuri. At more formal occasions it is polite not to fill your own glass, but allow those around you to do it on your behalf. This custom is not rigidly held at more relaxed gatherings.
In the past, sake would have traditionally been served warm. These days it is enjoyed chilled, hot, or at room temperature based on the time of the year and the personal preferences of the drinker. Sake also pairs extremely well with food, both Japanese and Western. Its smooth and somewhat sweet taste means it works in tandem with everything from seafood to spaghetti. If that were not enough, sake itself can be used as an ingredient in cooking. It is often used in marinades for fish and meat as a means of both tenderising and reducing their odour.

A Continuing Legacy
Sake has historically played an integral role within Japanese culture and society, especially within the context of religious rituals, both Shinto and Buddhist, as well as during festival celebrations. The consumption of sake during the former served as a means by which priests were able to interact with the divine, while also serving as a form of purification. Sake’s enduring significance for Japan is perhaps best illustrated by the consumption of toso, a spiced variety of sake associated with medical properties, during Japanese New Year celebrations. It is enjoyed by young and old alike, bridging the gap between generations and securing the future of Japan’s national drink.

December 2022
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