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Category Archive: Japanese Culture

Famous Japanese Olympians Through the Years

  • Posted by:
  • April 14, 2014

Since last September’s announcement by the International Olympic Committee that Tokyo won the bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, preparations have been well under way. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) created the Bureau of Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games Preparation on the 1st of January this year. The bureau is tasked to formulate the plans for the 2020 Summer Games to further aid in the capabilities of TMG’s sports administration.

Here’s a look back on some of Japan’s famous Olympic athletes through the years:

Kumagai

Ichiya “Ichy” Kumagai (熊谷 一弥 Kumagai Ichiya, 1890 – 1968) – born in in Ōmuta, Fukuoka Prefecture, he was the first Japanese Olympic medalist who won in tennis in the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. Kumagae actually won two silver medals, one in the men’s singles event where he lost to the South African Louis Raymond and the other in the men’s doubles event with his tennis partner Seiichiro Kashio, losing to Oswald Turnbull and Maxwell Woosnam from Great Britain.

Ichiya Kumagai

Nishida

Sueo Ōe (大江 季雄 Ōe Sueo,  1914 – 1941) and Shuhei Nishida (西田 修平 Nishida Shūhei, 1910 – 1997) – they both mainly competed in pole vaulting. In the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, both athletes tied for second place. Sueo Ōe refused to compete with his friend Shuhei Nishida, leaving Ōe with the bronze medal. When the athletes returned home to Japan, Nishida later recalled, “we joined half of the silver medal with half the bronze medal, which we would both keep. This made us very famous, for these medals were called the Medals of Eternal Friendship.”

Shuhei Nishida

Endo

Yukio Endo (遠藤 幸雄 Endō Yukio, 1937 – 2009) – a gymnast, Yukio Endo won gold medals with the Japanese team in three Olympics in 1960 (Rome), 1964 (Tokyo) and 1968 (Mexico). He also received two individual gold medals in parallel bars and individual- all-around at the 1964 Summer Olympics.

Yukio Endo. | Kroon, Ron / Anefo

 

Kosei

Kosei Inoue (井上 康生 Inoue Kōsei, born May 15, 1978 in Miyakonojo, Miyazaki) – a Judo practitioner, he garnered a gold medal in the under 100 kilogram class at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. He is widely known for his specialty throws and Ōuchi gari (大内刈, major inner reap) and Uchi Mata (内股, inner thigh throw).

Kosei Inoue. | Daniel Vaulot

 

 

 

 

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Traditional Japanese Dolls

  • Posted by:
  • April 3, 2014

Traditional Japanese dolls are also known as ningyō (人形), literally “human shape.” There are different types of traditional Japanese dolls in various forms ranging from babies, imperial court personalities, and warriors, to gods. Many Japanese dolls have a story and a long standing tradition and are still made today for shrines at homes, for festivals such as Kodomo no Hi (childrens festival) and Hinamatsuri (doll festival), and for gift giving.

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During the Jōmon period (8000-200 BC) and the Kofun period (300-600 AD), the craft of creating Dogū (humanoid figure) dolls was already apparent in Japan. The history and origins of the Hinamatsuri festival indicate that ancient Japanese made dolls out of grass were blessed and thrown into the river at Ise Shrine in 3 BC. At the height of the Heian period, several types of dolls were created and patterned from the novel “The Tale of Genji,” written by Lady Murasaki. Children played with dolls, women made protective dolls to give to children, and dolls were used in traditional ceremonies.

KCP students pose beside Japanese doll collection. | KCP Flickr

During the Edo period (1603-1867), when Japan was closed to most trade with the outside world, the craft of doll making was refined to an art form. Wealthy Japanese were willing to spend for beautiful sets of dolls to display in their homes or give as gifts. The sets of intricately made dolls varied in size and design. The trade of doll making was so much in demand that the Japanese government eventually regulated the doll making industry.

Some of the more popular traditional Japanese dolls are:

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Ichimatsu dolls (市松人形) – the original Ichimatsu dolls were named after an 18th-century Kabuki actor. By the 19th century, these types of dolls usually represented children. They are accurately proportioned and have glass eyes and flesh-colored skin. The dolls are made with arms and joints to be able to wear clothes and hold a pose. Baby Ichimatsu dolls with their mischievous expressions were popular during the late 19th century up until the early 20th century. In 1927, 58 original 32-in. dolls were created for the Friendship Doll Exchange program between Japan and the U.S. This further influenced the modern day look of the Ichimatsu dolls which is a more solemn looking girl dressed in a kimono.

Ichimatsu dolls. | Ellie

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Daruma dolls are spherical in shape with red bodies, white faces, and no pupils. They typically represent Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen. It is customary to paint one of the doll’s pupils at the beginning of New Year, make a wish, and  if it comes true, to paint the second pupil. Daruma dolls are supposed to bring good fortune, prosperity, and fortitude to reach goals.

Daruma doll. | Quinn Dombrowski

Iki-ningyō  – these life-like, life-sized dolls were used in misemono shows and portrayed characters in stories. The dolls lent a sense of realism to the story and usually shocked the audience: they were played out in scenes such as lying in a pool of blood.

Other such traditional Japanese dolls are teru teru bozu and Kokeshi dolls that each have their own interesting origins and stories.

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Contemporary Art: Japanese Manhole Covers

  • Posted by:
  • March 31, 2014

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It seems unlikely that anyone would give a manhole cover a second glance as they pass it by.  Manhole covers are generally round, and the reasons for this were made popular in a Microsoft job-interview question of why they were so. (The question was meant to discover a person’s thinking process and had more than one correct answer - because heavy round covers can be more easily moved by being rolled, a circular shape has a smaller surface than a square one, etc.) However, it is not uncommon to have other manhole shapes such as rectangles and squares. In the U.S., particularly in Nashua, New Hampshire, manholes and their covers are triangular in shape and they point in the direction of the underlying flow. But they will soon be phased out because they are not big enough to meet modern safety standards and a manufacturer that produces large enough triangles cannot be found. There are still some triangular manholes in San Francisco and in Hamilton, Bermuda.

Sébastien Bertrand

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Manhole covers have a design that must provide traction for traffic moving over it. This is essential when the ground gets slippery in wet weather. An effective design has multi-directional lines for better drag. In Japan, manholes and their covers are typically circular in shape. But what makes the covers so unique is that nearly 95% of the 1,780 municipalities of Japan have engraved or painted manhole covers in multiple colors and intricate designs.  Popular manhole cover designs are official flowers, trees, animals, local spots, and other things a particular municipality is known for. These designs do not only provide traction, but they are also recognizable from every direction, with an artistic appeal that will surely last for several decades or longer.

Toby Oxborrow

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In the late 1950s, larger cities in Japan were using original manhole cover designs. When the engineers from the big cities worked on sewer systems in other parts of the country, they brought the manhole cover designs with them, which is why you can see Tokyo Nagoya manhole cover designs in other parts of Japan.  In the 1980s, the proliferation of more artistic and original manhole cover designs spread throughout Japan.  According to Noboru Fujiwara of the Japan Ground Manhole Association, credit for making visible and artistic manhole cover designs goes to Yasutake Kameda, a Japanese ranking bureaucrat in the construction ministry. Only 60% of Japanese households were part of the municipal sewer system. He needed to raise social acceptance for the costly public works that largely took place underground, unnoticed and under-appreciated. Kameda thought of making water systems more visible by encouraging residents of cities and even people from smaller communities to take part in developing unique cover designs with local appeal.

OKFoundryCompany

Today, Japan is known for having beautiful manhole covers that make it impossible for people to  pass without appreciating the details in the otherwise mundane.

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Celebrating White Day in Japan

  • Posted by:
  • March 10, 2014

White Day (ホワイトデー Howaito Dē) is celebrated a month after Valentine’s Day in Japan. Women and girls usually give their men friends gifts of chocolate as an expression of love, social obligation, or courtesy every 14th of February. A month later, on the 14th of March, also known as White Day, the men and boys who received the sweet tokens return the favor to the giver.

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Chocolates of love are called honmei choco (本命チョコ), literally,  “true feeling chocolate.”  Giri choco (義理チョ) means “obligation chocolate.” Women give men both types of chocolates on Valentine’s Day. Honmei choco is usually more expensive and of higher quality. Popular White Day gifts given by men are white chocolates, jewelry, cookies, marshmallows, and white lingerie. There is sometimes a general rule that is observed on White Day called sanbai gaeshi (三倍返), “triple the return,” where men are supposed to give gifts in return that are three times as expensive as the gifts they received.

White Day chocolate box. | Pete Slater

White Day was first celebrated in Japan in 1978. It was initiated by the National Confectionery Industry Association as an “answer day” for men to pay back the gifts they received by the females who gave them chocolates and other presents on Valentine’s Day. Soon after, there was no stopping other companies and retailers from marketing various products for White Day.

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With White Day nearing, Japan is abuzz with so many gift offerings that it is difficult to choose which one to give to your special someone. Krispy Kreme has joined the White Day bandwagon by offering specialized workshops for men to create their own White Day gifts made from doughnuts. Krispy Kreme has dubbed this event the White Day Donuts Remake Lesson.  This is part of Krispy Kreme  Japan’s Donuts Remake lecture series that aims to teach people new ways to enjoy their pastries through creative decoration. There’s no better way to show your love and appreciation for the special women in your lives than creating gifts with your own two hands.

Krispy Kreme’s White Day Box. | Screen grab from Krispy Kreme, Japan

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Exciting March Festivals in Japan

  • Posted by:
  • March 3, 2014

Each month brings exciting festivals in Japan. These festivals are a wonderful way to get to know the Japanese culture and way of life.

Here are a few Japanese festivals in March:

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Dai Himonjiyaki – a month-long fire festival held every March around the area of Mt. Aso in Kyushu. The most anticipated event of Dai Himonjiyaki takes place on the 2nd saturday of March on a mountain slope in Ojo-dake where giant Chinese characters (measuring about 350 meters) signifying “fire” are lit. Hifuri Shinji, a ceremony offered for a rich harvest, is the celebration of the union of the gods. Locals and visitors alike light pine torches and wave them in the air, creating rings of fire for a spectacular sight.

Aso fire festival. | Josh

The Yama-no-kami Matsuri (Mountain God Festival) is held at the end of March in the neighboring village, Nishihara. Part of the festival is the process called no-yak which involves setting fields around the area on fire to keep the grass in the pasture land in prime condition. You can try delicious delicacies such as the Aso beef barbeque in styles that vary by town and secret age-old family recipes. You can also visit Hana-Asobi (Aso Agri Square) near Aso Station, home to Japan’s only Tofu Museum.

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Omizutori (お水取り) – an annual Japanese sacred water-drawing Buddhist festival that takes place in Nara. Omizutori is the final rite of a two-week long observance of the Shuni-e ceremony (Second-Month Service of the lunisolar calendar).  The purpose of the festival is to cleanse the people of their sins and to usher in the new year. During the evening ceremony called Otaimatsu, monks wave burning torches and draw large fiery circles in the air. Local belief is that whoever witnesses the ceremony and is showered with sparks is protected from evil, harmful things.

Omizutori. | Realmonkey

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Sagicho Matsuri – also known as Omihachiman no Hi-matsuri (Omihachiman Shrine fire festival), this event is held in Shiga, every mid-March. It was first celebrated in the 16th century when new settlers to the district organized a grander festival than the one being celebrated in April.  Elaborately decorated Sagicho floats are gathered at Himure Hachimangu Shrine. These are made with pine torches woven from straw and topped with a long bamboo pole decorated with numerous strips of red paper. The center of each float is mounted with an animal representing the one for that particular Oriental Zodiac year. A poll is taken to determine the best float, after which they are paraded through town with people carrying mikoshi (portable shrines) shouting “Cho yare, yare yare!”

Red paper strips on a Sagicho float. | ORAZ Studio

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Cats in Japanese Culture and History

  • Posted by:
  • February 24, 2014

Cats are often the stuff of legend–they embody mysticism. It is no wonder that cats have been culturally significant for many nations. Their relationship with and influence on humans is as old as civilization itself and can be traced back to over 9,500 years.

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In Japan, cats are revered for giving good luck and other positive results. The popular Japanese cat figurine maneki-neko (招き猫, “beckoning cat”) is typically believed to bring such blessings. The figurine is often of a cat with its paw in an upright position as if beckoning. According to Japanese legend, a landlord witnessed a cat waving a paw at him. Intrigued by this gesture, he came close to the cat when suddenly a lightning bolt struck the exact place he was previously standing in. The landlord believed that his good fortune was because of the cat’s actions. Hence, the beckoning hand became a symbol of good luck. Maneki-neko are mostly found at the entrance of shops, restaurants, and other business establishments. They can serve as other more useful and portable things such as keychains and piggy banks.

Makeni-neko. | Sarah

Japan’s history indicates that cats have played an important role in Japanese culture and society, hence the number of shrines and temples dedicated to cats in the country. Here are some of them.

Nambujinja – located in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, a mythical cat-like creature known in Japanese folktales is revered at this temple. Local residents are confident that cats will always keep harmful rodents away.

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Konoshimajinja – in Kyotango City, Kyoto, a statue of a cat with its paw protectively on its kitten’s head greets people who enter the city. Kyoto, Japan’s former capital, originally was the center of high culture and aristocracy. The city was home to prominent silk producers who believed that cats kept the number of rats to a minimum and enabled them to work continuously to produce the finest silk possible.

Nekojinja – literally means Cat Shrine.  Fishermen from the island of Tashirojima in Miyagi Prefecture are said to be able to predict how big a catch they would get from observing the behavior of the many cats on the island.

Cat shrine. | Mary-chan

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Takoraisu: The Delicious Fusion of Japanese and Mexican Cuisines

  • Posted by:
  • February 20, 2014

I love Japanese and Mexican food. But I never thought of combining tacos and rice to create a delicious marriage of two of my culinary favorites and end up something so unique and delicious. Taco rice truly embodies fusion cuisine.

A taco is a traditional Mexican dish made from a wheat or corn tortilla that is either soft or crunchy, with fillings like chicken, beef, pork, seafood, vegetables, beans, and cheese. The tortilla is folded or rolled so as to eat it like a sandwich. Garnishes like avocado, salsa, cilantro, guacamole, lettuce, and onions add to the flavor and make the taco even more irresistible.

The taco predates the arrival of Europeans in Mexico.  Anthropological evidence indicates that indigenous people who lived in the lake region of the Valley of Mexico already ate tacos filled with tiny fish.

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Taco rice (タコライス takoraisu) is an Okinawan dish made of taco-flavored ground beef, and oftentimes, shredded cheese, lettuce, tomato and salsa, served on top of rice. Takoraisu is a favorite among many Okinawans and is often served for school lunches. Taco rice was created by Matsuzo Gibo in 1984 and was initially served at two of his cafes, King Tacos and Parlor Senri, located close to the main gate of Camp Hansen, the U.S. Marine Corps Base in Kin, Okinawa. Needless to say, takoraisu is a favorite dish among military personnel stationed in Okinawa. Taco rice is so popular that in 1996, KFC included it in their menu in all the branches in Japan. Yoshinoya, a popular Japanese gyudon fast food chain, also added taco rice to their menu in their branches in Okinawa since 2004.

Taco rice. | t-mizo

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What makes taco rice Japanese is that, aside from the Tex-Mex flavor, mirin, sake, and soy sauce are added. This gives it the extra flavor that makes takoraisu even tastier. Sometimes it can be served with rice in a tortilla roll. Another variant of the dish is called “taco rice ball” where all the usual ingredients like meat, rice, and cheese are combined, dipped in batter, deep fried then served with salsa or tomato ketchup. Oishi!

Taco rice. | goodmami

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Could Japanese Ama Divers Be Linked to Mermaids?

  • Posted by:
  • February 17, 2014

Mermaids have long held mysticism and fascination for many. They are believed to be aquatic creatures with the upper body of a human female and a fish tail instead of legs. The first tales of mermaids can be traced back to ancient Assyria, where the goddess Atargatis was driven by remorse after she accidentally killed her human lover and then transformed herself into a mermaid. In Greek mythology, mermaids are considered the alluring sirens of the sea. Christopher Columbus also believed he had seen mermaids while exploring the Caribbean, and more sightings were reported in the 20th and 21st century from around the world.

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Ama (海人, women; 海女, men 海士) are Japanese free divers known for collecting pearls. Most ama divers are women who seem to have lungs of steel. Ethno-historians believe that they initially traveled with the currents from continental Asia across to southern Japan where they were divided into two types of nomadic communities. One group traveled to the coast of the Pacific Ocean, and the other, to the north Japan Sea coast. According to legend, one group was carried away by a typhoon to the north and was shipwrecked on the shores of Noto Peninsula on the Japan Sea. Even today, descendants of the original women ama divers still practice the ancient tradition of free diving. They continue with the semi-nomadic customs in the village of Osatsu along the coast of the Ise-Shima region in Mie Prefecture.  Pearls from oysters are no longer the prized catch for the modern day women ama divers. Rather these are snails, clams, local abalone, and sea urchins, depending on the season.

 Ama at Mikimoto Pearl Island. | Shenghung Lin

Women divers were first mentioned on an ancient scroll from 927.  The rich and colorful ama divers’ history is showcased at the Mikimoto Pearl Island Museum in Toba, which has a collection of ancient tools (like bone knives) found on the sea floor of the nearby areas that date back 3,000 years. Ama women divers do not need any modern day apparatus like what helps help deep sea divers breathe and stay longer underwater. With their graceful movements, and garbed in their traditional white uniform believed to keep sharks away, an ama diver can make any lonely sailor see a gorgeous mermaid emerging from the depths of the ocean.

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Click image or here: http://youtu.be/H_NwUPd8Hhc

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Celebrating Valentine’s Day and White Day in Japan

  • Posted by:
  • February 13, 2014

Many consider February the love month because of Valentine’s Day. Every 14th of February, the Feast of Saint Valentine is observed in many countries. It began as a liturgical celebration of Saint Valentine of Rome who was said to have been imprisoned for ministering to persecuted Christians and for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry. Legend tells us that Saint Valentine was able to heal the sick daughter of his jailer.

Valentine’s Day was first associated with romance during the High Middle Ages when Geoffrey Chaucer made courtly love popular among his circle of friends. 18th century England saw Valentine’s Day as an occasion when lovers showed their love for each other by giving flowers, confectionery, and greeting cards known as valentines. The tradition of Valentine’s Day is still observed in very similar ways today.

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Valentine chocolates. | Bert Kimura

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Valentine’s Day in Japan is mostly observed by women who give presents to men, usually chocolates. But not all presents given on Valentine’s Day entail romance.  “Giri-choko” (義理チョコ, courtesy chocolate) are chocolates given to men who are either friends, colleagues, or bosses, and these symbolize friendship or gratitude, while “honmei-choko” (本命チョコ, chocolates of love) are given to men when romantic interest is involved. Other popular restaurants and fast food chains are getting into the Valentine’s spirit. For example, Domino’s Japan is offering the “Happy Valentine’s Day Pizza” from February 7 -14. It is a cute heart-shaped pizza topped with tomato sauce, pepperoni, and mozzarella cheese.

Domino’s Valentine Pizza poster (cropped). | kristi-san

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In 1977, the Ishimuramanseido confectionery company based in Fukuoka marketed marshmallows to men on March 14 and initially called it Marshmallow Day (マシュマロデー Mashumaro Dē). Several confectionery companies followed suit and began creating white chocolate specially made for March 14, which became known as White Day. This is a relatively young concept that started in Japan in 1978 by the National Confectionery Industry Association as an answer to Japan’s Valentine’s Day tradition. The idea was that on White Day, men who receive either the giri-choko or the honmei-choko on Valentine’s Day should return the favor to the women by also giving them gifts such as marshmallows, white lingerie, jewelry, cookies, and white and dark chocolate.

White Day gifts. | Danny Choo

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Delicious Japanese Street Food

  • Posted by:
  • February 6, 2014

Street food is easy for us to grab when we are on the go. Sold in streets and public places that have a lot of people traffic, these are mostly finger foods or easy to eat viands cheaper than most restaurant meals.  Street food gives us a glimpse of the unique gastronomic delights of a particular country.  It is a great way to get to know cultures and traditional tastes from all around the world.

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Street food has been around for a very long time. During the excavation of the ancient Roman ruins of Pompeii, evidence of street food vendors was found–chickpea soup was a common meal.  In ancient China, street food generally catered to the poor, but the wealthy usually sent their servants out to buy street food so they could enjoy it in their own homes. The Aztec marketplaces  showed indications that vendors sold almost 50 kinds of tamales with a broad range of meats such as rabbit, gopher, fish, turkey, frog, and other ingredients such as maize flowers and eggs.

Food stall in Fukuoka. | Luc Byhet

Street food in Japan is a sight to behold, and if only taste buds could sing, they would belt out a tune of delight. Japanese street food is also known as yatai (屋台), the word for a small, mobile food stall.  Fukuoka Street in Fukuoka Prefecture is considered Japan’s street food mecca. Over 150 food stalls riddle the area close to the water–a perfect place to enjoy all the delicious food.

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Some of the more popular street food you can enjoy from  Japan:

Oden –  a Japanese hot pot, popular in winter. You can choose various ingredients such as daikon radishes, boiled eggs, fish cakes, yam cakes, and many more. The recipes, ingredients, sauces, and broths vary by region.

Takoyaki – octopus in a dumpling ball. They are usually made with pickled ginger, okonomiyake sauce, fish shavings, and rich and creamy Japanese mayonnaise.

Takoyaki. | SteFou!

Gyoza – popular in Japanese restaurants all around the world. They are fried dumplings filled with vegetables and meats with a tangy soy-vinegar dipping sauce.

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Yakitori – bite sized pieces of chicken on bamboo skewers, barbecued over a hot charcoal grill.

Okonomiyaki – savory pancake made with a number of ingredients such as meat, flour, eggs, yam, seafood, vegetables, and sometimes even cheese. It is topped with Worcestershire sauce, seaweed flakes, pickled ginger, and Japanese mayonnaise.

Gyoza. | verygreen

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