japan: 11 posts

Japanese Roses and Fantasies

If I fashioned my life following the recommendations of Japanese beauty magazines, I would wake up in a white and pink bedroom tastefully decorated with colorful cushions and artfully arranged designer shoes. I would go to business meetings in mint and rose ensembles complete with vertiginous high heels and wear the perfect cat eyeliner. My meals would be so picture perfect that guests would be wondering whether they should eat them or simply admire my ability to carve carrots into maple leaves.


Given the number of impeccably groomed women I encountered in Tokyo, being perfectly polished is possible, but for better or worse, my life is not even close to the Japanese magazine fantasy. (OK, I did learn the cat eyeliner thanks to the point-by-point instructional diagrams spanning several pages.)  But I enjoy the portrayal of a neater and prettier universe on the glossy pages as a kind of vicarious thrill. It’s the same reason why I watch flamboyant Bollywood movies and moody film noir. It’s an escape from the routine.

While the Japanese are famously understated when it comes to perfume, fragrance is an important part of the fantasy that every magazine puts forward. Most choices are sheer, fresh and sparkling, as I’ve previously described in The Japanese Fragrance Conundrum : Top Selling Perfumes, and there are plenty of roses.

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Miso Grilled Salmon with Honey and Orange

As much as I love experimenting with new foods, there are times when all I want is comfort. If I’ve had a tough day and need a hug, I make a bowl of mashed potatoes with a side of cucumber salad. Or I whip up lacy crepes and eat them with plenty of sour cream and cherry jam.  These dishes are old childhood favorites, and they always make me feel better. But over the years, I’ve added a new set of comfort foods to my repertoire. They range from my mother-in-law’s Indian sour lentil soups and vegetable stews to Vietnamese grilled pork on rice. And anything made with miso immediately qualifies as comfort food.


What is it about miso that makes it so comforting? It might be its intensely savory flavor or the velvety, suave aftertaste; I’m not quite sure. All I know is that I love it. Miso paste is made by fermenting soybeans and/or other grains with salt and koji, a special starter. The result is the unique vitamin and protein rich condiment that has been used in Japan for centuries. The proportions of soybeans to other grains in the miso recipe will determine its flavor and color. There are numerous miso types, but the white (shiro) and red (aka) varieties are the most common. White miso, which is really golden yellow in hue, contains more rice than soybeans and has a mild, sweet flavor. By contrast, the soybean rich red miso is meaty, bold and salty.

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Persimmon Toast

My husband first encountered a persimmon during his first visit to my family home. My stepfather handed it to him and simply said, “Just eat it like an apple.”  For some strange reason, my stepfather prefers persimmons unripe and hard. But my husband wasn’t convinced, as the hard flesh was unyielding and his mouth felt coated with sticky cotton.  It took him a few hours to get rid of the bitter, tannic sensation. The same willingness to please his new in-laws also left my husband unable to refuse yet another shot of vodka, but the consequences of that lasted into the next day. Imagine his surprise when he finally tried a ripe persimmon and discovered that it was a juicy fruit with a delicate perfume.

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There are thousands varieties of persimmons, but Fuyu and Hachiya are the most common ones. Fuyu (top left photo) looks like a squat orange tomato, and it can be eaten when it’s hard. It’s sweet and crunchy, with a distinctive flavor of dates and plums. The Hachiya variety (in the photos below) is pointy and elongated, and it’s the kind that tormented my poor husband. As he will tell you, when hard and unripe it tastes even worse than a green banana–bitter and chalky. But give it a few days to soften and it turns sweet and luscious.

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Around the World in Scents : Japan

Today Lauren explores attitudes towards perfume in Japan and invites us to experience its various scents.

It was a rare night for us young English teachers in rural Japan.  We were escaping our hot, stuffy apartments amid the tea fields for a glitzy night out in the bright lights of Tokyo.  I greeted my friend Mayumi in the parking lot.  Her skin was creamy and flawless, as always, but as I hugged her hello I noticed something different.


“Mm!” I said.  “You smell so nice!”

“Thank you,” replied Mayumi timidly, smiling as she put a finger to her lips.  “I’m wearing it for our big night out in Tokyo.”  Her eyes pleaded with me to keep the secret.  Our friend Jun was picking us up shortly, and she didn’t want to discuss perfume in front of him.

Though I’d been living in Japan for several months, it was the first time I smelled a fragrance on anyone with whom I’d come into contact.  The light, gently tumbling cloud of lilies, vanilla and sparkling orange was enough to make me thirst for big doses of perfume.  I was a vampire who’d caught a whiff of blood. Cultural differences in Japan meant that wearing personal fragrance was generally considered rude.  In a country that is so crowded with people and so limited on space, extending your personhood via a bubble of perfume – however pleasant – is considered intrusive and inconsiderate.

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Things That Makes One’s Heart Beat Faster

I would love to have shared a cup of tea with Sei Shonagon, a 11th century Japanese court lady and author of The Pillow Book. What a character she must have been! It is rare that a personage removed by so many centuries feels so modern, but I can just imagine her doling out choice comments and sharing some court gossip. Of course, I would be worried that this aesthete might find either my conversation too dull or my attire too plain, since her diary is evidence enough of her strong opinions.

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Besides anecdotes about court life, The Pillow Book is full of poetic vignettes and observations. It’s a world where the first snowfall can be cause for celebration and where lovers send each other incense perfumed letters. Sei Shonagon’s rapier-sharp wit and appetite for life shine through her compilation of stories. That she is not all charm and sweet manners makes her even more fascinating.

The Pillow Book was written during a particularly trying period of Sei Shonagon’s life. Emperor Ichijo had recently taken on another consort, sidelining the writer’s patron, Empress Teishi, to a secondary role. Incidentally, the biggest rival to Sei Shonagon’s literary skill served the new Empress Shoshi. It was Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the first modern novel, The Tale of Genji. With the declining fortunes of Empress Teishi, Sei Shonagon’s future was likewise troubling, and she probably found solace in writing.

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