10 Things You Need to Know Before Flying to Japan

A gang of Japanese taiko drummers seems to have taken over your chest. Or maybe it’s just a slight flutter of butterfly wings in your stomach. Fear is just excitement in disguise. You are determined to step onto that plane bound for Japan. But wait! What if you forgot something important? So you can step confidently into your Japan adventure, I’ve compiled a list of…

10 Things You Need to Know Before Flying to Japan

Holiday on Ice Cream Spotlight #HaloTop

Halo Top ice cream was provided for this review. All opinions are my own.

Globetrotting around the world with my tennis star mother during school holidays had its perks. Exposure to other cultures and perspectives was one. Tasting desserts and ice cream of other countries was another travel perk!

Portugal had the best ice cream bars (think American ice cream trucks of yesteryear.) Little figurines accompanied the ice cream bars. Like the trinkets found in Cracker Jacks and cereals once upon a time. (Health and Safety Standards took over childhood fun. Sigh.)

Mom was also the tennis pro at the Cambridge Tennis Club for a spell. Summers in Massachusetts also meant Brigham’s Ice Cream. Licking a Brigham’s pecan chip ice cream cone with chocolate jimmies was sheer heaven. (Sadly, they closed operations in 2013.) During the school year I lived with Dad, my stepmother and siblings in Tokyo. With the introduction of Häagen-Dazs into Japan, perhaps attitudes of young Japanese are changing. But, back in the day, Japanese ice cream was deprived of rich cream and fat. So, a scoop (or double-scoop!) was divine.

Traveling Gluten-Free in Japan

So you’re heading to the Land of the Rising Sun. Japan, where gluten-free rice reigns supreme.
Easy peasy gluten-free. Right? Depends if you’re a glass half full or empty sort of person.


Let’s start with sushi:

Fresh fish is fine.
Japanese sticky rice is gluten-free (and absolutely delicious!)
Miso soup is served with most Japanese restaurant meals. Miso is sometimes gluten-free. (Miso is made of fermented beans – soybeans, azuki beans, and chickpeas. Millet, rice and quinoa are used in the process. That’s fine. But, barley, wheat and rye are also used.)
Soy sauce is mostly wheat based in Japan. Solution? Bring small packets of Tamari.
OR If you are traveling in Central Japan (the Chuubu district) or Nagoya, you are in Tamari territory.
The star of hot wasabi paste is a root. Nonetheless, it is often mixed with wheat.
Dashi soup – when homemade with bonito flakes and konbu kelp and water you’re all right. In other circumstances, present the card below.
Be Aware of:
“Crab”
Stay away from anything resembling crab unless you are 100% certain it’s the real thing. Fake crab is crawling with wheat. It’s seen in onigiri and Japanese bento lunch boxes.
“Buckwheat noodles”
Japanese restaurants may advertise buckwheat noodles on the menu. Nice if the noodles were made entirely of buckwheat. However, to keep costs down, most soba noodles contain some wheat.
“Tare Sauce”
Tare is a sauce commonly slathered atop skewered chicken (yakitori.)

Awesome Cats and Colorful Tools for Culinary Professionals in Tokyo

Flirting with the oldest temple in Tokyo (Sensoji) is Kappabashi-dori. The street crammed with specialty stores serves culinary professionals, home cooks and foodies from abroad. (No special invites needed.) Restaurants all over Japan rely on Kappabashi-dori vendors to provide them with plastic food. Yes. Plastic replicas of what a restaurant serves are often showcased. After getting my fill of gawking at the expensive fake soba and sushi (which look mouthwatering good), I did some serious shopping. Scores of stores cater to chefs who specialize in Japanese, Italian and French cooking. Beckoning to me were the shops for bakers.

Ninja Notes:
Bring cash. Many shops in Japan (including the stores on Kappabashi-dori) do not accept credit cards.
Be a good ambassador. Be polite. Negotiate prices in a boardroom but not in a Japanese mom-and-pop shop (which line Kappabashi-dori.)
Wear comfy shoes. There are over 170 shops and covers 800 meters - about half a mile.
(Plus if sightseeing at Sensoji Temple, stilettos should be left at home.)

Secrets to Popular Japanese Dorayaki Pancake Perfection

Japanese dorayaki pancakes are my go-to when traveling in Japan. The golden almost-cake pancakes filled with red bean paste are perfect for breakfast on the go. Dorayaki are inexpensive, wrapped beautifully and easily slipped into a purse or backpack.

Usagiya in Tokyo is where you’ll find premium dorayaki. (Their doors have been open from 1940. You know they are doing something very right!)  In Osaka, the Akanemaru dorayaki pancakes are the most famous.

Japanese Dorayaki are basically red bean paste pancake sandwiches. The Japanese pancake is slightly sweeter and lighter than your average American pancake. So how hard is it to make a pancake? It’s a breeze, right? Maybe. I’ve got a new respect for the art of Japanese dorayaki pancake making.

Half a dozen fails preceded a golden crop of Japanese dorayaki pancakes. So you can win from the start, here are a few tips for success:

Healthy Quinoa Japanese Donburi Bowl #SundaySupper

Do specific foods contain magic powers? New Year’s Day in Japan brings feasts of osechi ryori: Layers of lacquered bento boxes filled with foods promise good fortune and longevity.  Inspired by the Japanese New Year feast and Southern Living’s promise that black-eyed beans will bring prosperity, I created a healthy quinoa Japanese donburi bowl. (Donburi in Japanese basically means a bowl of rice topped with “fixings.” Instead of sticky white Japanese rice, I substituted quinoa.) Most everyone at the beginning of the year is determined to realize dreams of healthy bodies and rich bank accounts, right?

To ensure riches are yours I packed the healthy quinoa with Japanese chestnuts. The golden nuts are symbols of gold coins. Black-eyed peas were also added. The beans swell as they cook. Southerners in America swear black-eyed peas are a necessity on New Year’s Day if you want your bank account to expand.
 

Amazing Tips for WiFi and Easy Japan Travel

Joy buzzed through my body. 15 years of marriage later, I was taking my husband on a dream trip to Japan. Nervous energy kicked in too as I packed suitcases. For the first time I was going to meet Japanese friends I’d spoken to on Skype. (iTalki and Café Talk are inexpensive ways to learn and practice Japanese. Discernment of whom you choose to befriend is a definite plus.)

Upon arrival in Osaka’s Kansai Airport, I was still deliriously happy from traveling in business class. (Thanks to credit card air miles.) Standing in line for customs, I caught up in e-mail via FreeWiFi@KIX. (Tokyo airports have similar free Wi-Fi services. Haneda: HANEDA-FREE-WIFI Narita: Click here. Where you are in the humongous airport determines the address.)

It wasn’t until we were leaving our hotel that I realized no Wi-Fi was available! Japanese friends told me of an app that promises connection to free Wi-Fi hot spots…They never worked for me or my husband (whose livelihood requires a high technology acumen.)

For work my husband arranged for an expensive call plan with AT & T. It soon became apparent that wasn’t sufficient. So we purchased a SIM card for his iPhone. (I should have done the same. Next time I wouldn’t worry about saving a few yen. I’d rather share the joy of being in Japan on social media in real time.)

Ina Garten’s Pound Cake, Chocolate, Matcha, Marriage and Compromise

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”
– Lao Tzu

Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa’s latest cookbook is dedicated to her husband. It’s all about the recipes her spouse loves. Oh, dear… Ina Garten’s fantastic recipes have always been inspirational. So have her elegant parties. Yet, as much as I love my husband, when it comes to pound cake, compromise is a must in our marriage. My beloved has warm and fuzzy feelings for his New Jersey diner pound cake desserts drizzled with chocolate sauce. As a product of my Japanese upbringing, my palate prefers matcha.

So, when I made Ina Garten’s pound cake...

Ninja Diary, The Royal Antidote for the Blues

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hyms at heaven’s gate
-Sonnet 29, William Shakespeare

In the midst of blessings, sometimes the blues come a-calling. But then I remember my heroes...

Emperor Meiji of Japan (1852-1912) was the ultimate multitasker. He cast aside criticism. He persevered in propelling Japan in a positive direction. After 200 years of isolation, the Tokugawa shogunate (feudal lord system) was toppled and the island opened its ports. Samurai grieved their loss of jobs and status. The West demanded deals that put Japanese at a poor advantage. Wildfire arguments about the country’s future raged across Japan.

Powerful Peppermint Magic in Japan and in Chocolate Cupcakes

Ancient Japanese knew the secrets of peppermint. (The miracles of chocolate and cupcakes came to Japan a few centuries later.) Alongside their Egyptian counterparts Japanese healers were prescribing peppermint for digestive and respiratory issues. Toothaches and headaches were also cured with the perfect mint. The current interest in the natural medicines has put the restorative qualities of peppermint back in the spotlight. (Aromatherapy is huge in Santa Monica. Is it popular in your neighborhood, too?) By the way, peppermint oil is packed with omega 3 fatty acids, iron, calcium, Vitamins A and C.

Ninja Note: Japanese mint is sharper than North American mint. If using peppermint essential oil for health or baking, a drop or two can be potent. (I speak experience. Trays of goodies away have been tossed thanks to my generous dousing of essential oils.)

Chocolate, another magical elixir, was allegedly introduced to Japan by the Dutch in the late 1700s

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