Most Popular Teas in Japan

One of the first things that caught my attention when I arrived for the first time to Japan was that many people drank bottled green tea:

Ocha
Suntory and Coca-Cola are two of the largest bottled green tea producers in Japan.

Soon, my curiosity lead me to a drinks vending machine in Shibuya, and instead of buying the usual Coca-Cola or Aquarius I pressed one of the buttons that gave me one of the green teas offered. I was expecting a flavor similar to Nestea, but my surprise was that my first gulp tasted bitter, very bitter, it had no sugar at all…. “Yuck!!”

After a while, after having drunk a lot of green tea and having “learned” how to appreciate its flavor, I was on a trip to San Francisco and I decided to order some Nestea. I tried it and… “Yuck!! This is water with sugar!”. And that’s how I became a fan of unsweetened green tea.

Japanese green tea plantation with Mount Fuji
Photo by Ippei Janine

Green Tea, Ocha お茶

In Chinese as well as in Japanese the character 茶 means “tea”. In Japanese it is pronounced “cha” and in Chinese I think it’s something similar. The word ocha お茶 is used to refer to green tea. The kind of green tea depends on the season the tea is harvested, how the leaves are dried and the time they are exposed to the sun:

  • Sencha (煎茶): it is the most drunk kind of green tea in Japan. If the leaves are from the first harvest (April-May) it is shincha (a lighter kind of green), if the leaves are from the Summer harvest it is bancha. A very popular kind of bancha is hōjicha (ほうじ茶); which is differentiated from normal bancha by its roasting process, it’s one of the softest green teas and it is usually served at midday along meals. It is the tea usually served for free in Japanese restaurants, it has a light brownish color.
  • Gyokuro (玉露): it is considered a kind of green tea of great quality and considerably more expensive than sencha. During the weeks before the harvest, tea plants are covered so that they are not exposed to sunlight, in this way the amount of theine and caffeine in the leaves increases. It has a darker color than sencha.

    ocha

  • Matcha: green tea in powder form that is soluble in hot water. It is the one used in the tea ceremony. It has a much stronger taste than sencha and gyokuro. Some people can’t stand such a strong flavor but I love it.

    green tea

  • Ulongcha

    It is a kind of tea originally from China which has much less caffeine than green tea. It is usually drunk as a refreshing drink in summer. Due to its low caffeine content it is one of the drinks chosen during nights for those that want to go to sleep soon.


    The darkest bottle is ulongcha.

    Cereal Teas

    Mugicha (barley tea) is exclusively made out of barley, so it doesn’t contain caffeine. Genmaicha is made mixing roasted rice and green tea leaves. Both have a yellowish color.

    Black Tea, Kocha (紅茶)

    It is the kind of tea that we drink in Europe and it is the only one in Japan in which it is allowed to put sugar or sugar substitutes.

    Other kinds of Tea

    In coffee shops many different kinds of international teas are offered. Lately an African tea, ruibos, is becoming really popular. Chai, jasmine tea and camomile tea are also widely known; being chai one of the favorite teas of Japanese girls.

    tea in japan

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The Gods that created Japan and the Ise Shrine

Thousands of years ago…

The Universe was formed by silence, darkness and a huge mass of formless matter. Particles within that huge mass started to move and collide with each other creating the first sounds ever heard. The movement of the mass gave place to clouds and the sky, where suddenly the three gods of Japanese mythology appeared. Under the sky a big sphere was formed by still chaotic particles; the gods decided to call it “Earth”. Several thousand years and several generations of gods passed until Goddess Izanami and God Izanagi were born; they were the creators of Japan.

Izanami and Izanagi received orders to put order on Earth. They accepted the responsibility and obtained a holy spear called Amenonuhoko (天沼矛, heavenly jeweled spear) that would help them with their mission. They traveled together through the sky until they arrived to a floating bridge near the Earth. They leaned out and stirred the water of the sea with the tip of the spear Amenonuhoko, when they took out the spear from the water, the drops of salty water that were left on the tip condensed creating the first island of Japan: Awajishima (淡路島). Using the same spear they continued creating islands giving place to Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu and the rest of Japanese islands. They also created forests, mountains and rivers. Izanami and Izanagi built their house in Awajishima and got married. To finish their duties they had many children that would have to follow with the creation of Japan and would be responsible to look after it: the God of Wind, the Goddess of the Moon, the Goddess of the Sea, the God of the Forests, the God of the Mountains and Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun, considered the “mother” of Japan.

Ise
Izanagi and Izanami creating the first island of Japan using the spear Amenonuhoko

2722 years ago

Jimmu was born, the first Emperor of Japan and the great-grandson of Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun. He was the first human with the blood of the Gods. Akihito, the current Emperor of Japan is a direct descendant of Jimmu.

2025 years ago

The tenth Emperor of Japan trusted his daughter Yamatohime the mission of finding a permanent place for the worship of Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun. Legend has it that Yamatohime was 20 years traveling around Japan without finding an appropriate location until she heard the voice of Amaterasu while she was strolling along the side of a river that cut through the forests of Ise. Amaterasu declared to Yamatohime her desire to live there forever: next to the flow of the river, feeling the protection of the trees and contemplating the immensity of the sea. Her desire was granted and the Shintoist Shrine of Ise was built in her honor, which is nowadays considered the most important Shintoist temple in Japan.

Ise
One of the originals drafts of the Ise Shrine.

The Ise Shrine is reconstructed every 20 years using the same kind of materials (a Japanese cypress species) following the original drafts. According to Shintoism, nature continuously dies and is born non-stop, nature is impermanent, this tradition helps to maintain the freshness and purity of the place. Cyclically reconstructing temples makes them have an old, original and new feel at the same time, forever.

70 years ago

In United States, hundreds of scientists of the Manhattan Project played God trying to control the will of particles and the fundamental forces that constitute the universe. The ultimate creation of this group of “scientist-Gods” were not islands, rivers, lakes, forests and mountains; they were Little Boy and Fat Man, two atomic bombs.

Two bombs whose energy ended the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, reduced two cities to ashes and ended the imperial yearning of Japan. Indirectly they also ended the God-status of the Emperor, supposed direct descendant of Goddess Amaterasu. The Emperor Hirohito renounced his divine status when he signed the humanity declaration in front of American General Douglas MacArthur. The God-scientists of Project Manhattan and the imperial ambitions of Hirohito and his government ended the lineage of Japanese gods, Hirohito was the last God of Japan. All Japanese gods up to Hirohito gather together every October in the temple of Goddess Amaterasu, in the Ise Shrine.

July 16th 2011

Pablo, Yuko, Sara, Carlos and I arrived in our bikes to the torii door that invited us to enter into the sacred territories of Goddess Amaterasu through the Uji bridge which leads to the Ise Shrine. We walked through the forest before the eyes of the God-trees, we cooled ourselves down next the God of the River, we strolled between the artificial wood structures with columns directly emerging from a ground covered with pebbles, rising up against us and merging with the nature of its environment. At the end of our walk we were finally able to make out Amaterasu’s home when the God of Wind allowed us to see it by blowing away the white clouds that protect the Kōtai Jingū, the holiest place in Japan.

Photons that traveled from the Sun until being captured 8 minutes after by the wood of a cypress part of the structure of the Goddess of the Sun home, and then they reached the chemical components of a 120mm film when my finger pressed the shutter of my Hasselblad, capturing the “reality” of that particular moment that will be lost in time like tears in the rain but whose image was transformed in bits and will be kept for the rest of eternity.

伊勢神宮

伊勢神宮

伊勢神宮

After coming back to Tokyo, Sara wrote:

“I just came back from the holiest place in Japan where I met several gods. The river delighted me with the reflection of the sun. The stones told me where to stop. The trees showed me the path to follow. The wind allowed me to see for a second a forbidden space for humans. I talked to them, I listened to them, all surrounded by the deepest silence.”

October 2011
As every year, thousands of gods met in the Ise Shrine to deal with Gods’ matters. Akihito, the current Emperor of Japan, was also there. Like every year he has to attend the meeting, as even though he is not a God anymore, according to Japanese mythology he is a descendant of them . When the day ended many of them went to the onsen of Spirited Away to relax and enjoy a bath in the hot springs.

Year 2013
The Ise Shrine will be reconstructed according to the original drafts following the tradition that Yamatohime started when he heard Amaterasu’s voice while strolling around Ise two thousand years ago.
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Albert Einstein, one of the scientist that played God in Project Manhattan said one time:

“I want to know God’s thoughts, the rest are details.” – Albert Einstein

When we stopped for a rest next to the Ise river, I thought about Spirited Away when Haku, the God of the River, is able to remember his real name:

Haku: Thanks Chihiro. My real name is Nigihayami Kohaku Nushi.
Chihiro: ¿Nigihayami?
Haku: Nigihayami Kohaku Nushi.
Chihiro: What a beautiful name. It sounds like a God’s name.
Haku: I also remember when you fell in me when you were a child.

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Japan and Spain rank 1st and 2nd in life expectancy

According to the last study of the OCDE Japan is the country with the highest life expectancy in the world (86.4 years) while Spain (my home country) ranks second (84.9 years). I am not an expert and most likely nobody knows for sure but I dare to say that probably two key elements in common between Spain and Japan are a healthy diet and a relatively good healthcare system (even though very different).

Life Expectancy

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Lineless Horizons from Enoshima

I think I heard about Hiroshi Sugimoto for the first time when I was in Naoshima. What caught my attention the most about him were his photographs of horizons. In them, the sky and the sea unite in harmony in the horizon in one line of space.

Bono liked this photo of Sugimoto so much that U2 used it for the front cover of their album “No Line on the Horizon”:

Sugimoto

Sugimoto was quite demanding and he let them use his work of art but they were not even able to write U2 on it, they had to respect the original photo as it was.

One day she’s still, the next she swells
You can hear the universe in her sea shells
Oh yeah
Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh

No, no line on the horizon, no line

I know a girl with a hole in her heart
She said infinity is a great place to start
Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh

She said “Time is irrelevant, it’s not linear”
Then she put her tongue in my ear
Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh
No, no line on the horizon
No, no line

No, no line on the horizon
No, no line

In September I went to Enoshima equipped with a lot of different cameras. When I arrived home I found myself with a lot of photos of blurred horizons, I didn’t take them thinking in Sugimoto in a conscious way, it was most likely my subconscious that was inspired by him. I was not able to “erase” the horizon line completely in any of them like Sugimoto, but I think some of them were pretty good.

In color with Hipstamatic:

Enoshima

Enoshima

Enoshima

In black and white with the iPhone and with my Canon S90:

Enoshima

Enoshima

Enoshima

And to end up, this photo series of a kite. I was marveled by how he was flying around the horizon line, under it and above it, advancing through the sky like trying to escape from my photos.

Enoshima

Enoshima

Enoshima

Enoshima

Enoshima

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Pepsi Pink strawberry and milk flavor

I have just tried the new Pepsi Pink with strawberry and milk flavor. I can feel the strawberry flavor but I don’t really taste any milk in the drink. Reading the label it turns out that the main ingredient of the drink is… grape juice!

Pepsi Pink strawberry and milk flavor

Almost every year Pepsi launches a new “weird” drink in Japan, most likely as a strategy to try to attract attention. Up until now I think the weirdest of them all is still the Pepsi Cucumber.

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2011 Top 10 products and trends in Japan

Gakuranman has translated into English a report published every year by the magazine Trendy which ranks the products and trends that conquered Japan during the year. Moreover it tries to predict what will be trendy in the coming year; however it usually fails when trying to forecast the future.

This is the ranking of what has been cool in Japan during 2011:

1.- Smartphones
2011 was the first year in which more smartphones were sold than “traditional” Japanese cell phones known as “keitai”. Among the top 10 phones sold in the year, 6 are smartphones, most of them using Android, although the most popular have been the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 4S.

I also let myself follow the smartphone trend and changed my old Panasonic keitai for an iPhone 4 at the beginning of the year. What I like the most about my iPhone 4 is its camera.

My iPhone

2.- Facebook
If 2010 was the year of Twitter, 2011 has been the year of Facebook, which has become popular after establishing offices in Tokyo and launching a Japanese version for keitais. However it is still a second tier social network but it’s growing now faster than Mixi and Twitter.

3.- Energy-saving fans
One of the great problems after the earthquake disaster in Tohoku has been to ensure electricity supply during Summer to all prefectures that depended on the power previously provided by Fukushima. Many campaigns were run to make the population aware of using air conditioning the minimum possible. One of the products that benefited indirectly were fans, specially those positioned in the market as “low consumption”/”energy-saving”.

USB fan
Michi and Mika gave me this fabulous USB fan as a gift.

4.- Sanyo GOPAN Bread Maker – GOPAN
This new device designed by Sanyo is able to make bread using rice. Several work colleagues have bought it and they say that the bread is pretty decent. In almost every Japanese house we have a suihanki 炊飯器 to cook rice, this new Sanyo product has been well placed in the marketplace as a new indispensable kitchen gadget. It was released last April and more than 200,000 units have been sold.

Sanyo Bread Maker

5.- Nissin Cup Noodle Rice
Nissin, the largest Cup Noodles producer in the world released to the market rice cups that can be cooked any time using a microwaves. This year the ready-made food market has doubled compared to last year, most likely as a consequence of the earthquake, which changed the lifestyle and culinary habits during the months after the disaster throughout the most affected areas.

Nissin Cup Noodel

6.- Daihatsu Mira E:S and Mazda Demio 13 Sky Active
It’s the first time I hear about these cars. It seems they are very cheap (under 10,000 euro/ 13,000 dollars) and consume around 3 liters per 100km.

Daihatsu

7.- Makkori Rice Wine
Makkori is Korean rice liquor. I don’t know why but suddenly Suntory decided to release a new makkori brand and advertised it so much that the imports of makkori from South Korea doubled with respect to 2010. Until this year I had never seen makkori on sale in any supermarket, only in Korean restaurants.

Makkori

8.- Willcom – Call anyone flat rate
Willcom, the fourth cell phone carrier in Japan offers a flat rate for calls for only 980 yen per month (around 10 euro / 13 dollars). The truth is I don’t know why this shows up in this ranking when Willcom is the carrier which is highly likely to disappear from the map in the coming future.

Willcom

9.- Loxonin
Since I arrived to Japan I use “Bufferin” as an Aspirin substitute. Of course, there are also Aspirins in Japan but they are quite expensive and I think there are still no “generic” Aspirins. I remember that one day in which I had a terrible headache at work, I asked for one to Yamazaki, a girl which keeps at her desk a drawer full of medicines. However she didn’t have it and gave me “Loxonin”. She told me that I still couldn’t get it without a prescription but soon it would be possible. 20 minutes after taking Loxonin I felt like jumping and going out jogging.

If you are interested, they are on sale in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and India under different names. The main component of the pills is Loxoprofen.

Loxonin

10.- Kamen Riders transformation belt
The star product of the year for kids in Japan. It is some kind of belt that can hold Kamen Rider cards that you can buy separately and according to the cards you insert it reproduces music and different sounds.

Kamen Rider belt

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The "Happiest" Prefectures in Japan

Hosei University has published a list of prefectures in Japan ranked by their “happiness level”. To find out the “happiness” of each region they have taken into account the lifestyle, work environment, security and general health of the population.

The number one is Fukui, a quite poor province compared to the rest of the country. Its economy is mainly rural, also they produce a lot of glass and have 14 nuclear reactors. In fact, it is the prefecture with the most nuclear reactors in the country.

The two most populated prefectures in Japan don’t rank very well. Tokyo is placed in spot number 38 and Osaka in the last spot. What factors do you think are the most important for people to have a happy life?

  • 1- Fukui
  • 2- Toyama
  • 3- Ishikawa
  • ……
  • 38- Tokyo
  • ……
  • 46- Kochi
  • 47- Osaka

Source: Ichigaya keizai shimbun

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Sakuma Drops – The Candy of "Grave of the Fireflies"

Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓) by Studio Ghibli is the saddest movie I have ever seen and at the same time the best anti-war movie I have ever seen. It tells the story of two orphan children, Seita and her sister Setsuko, after the bombing of Kobe at the end of World War II. They are alone trying to survive on their own and one of the few things they have to eat is a candy box that Setsuko keeps as if it was a treasure. As the story unfolds the candy box becomes one of the most important symbols in the movie.

Setsuko’s candy are Sakuma Drops (サクマ式ドロップス) which have been produced in Japan since 1908 by Sakuma Seika. Nowadays it’s not easy to find them; I love them and I buy them every chance I get.

This is the Grave of the Fireflies movie special edition box which has a picture of Setsuko trying to find if there is any candy left:

Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies
There’s many different flavors.

Grave of the Fireflies
One of the scenes of Grave of the Fireflies where you can see the Sakuma Drops box

Three years ago NHK aired a TV series and a movie based on the anime movie by Ghibli. It seems that the plot is quite different and people didn’t like it that much but you can also spot a Sakuma Drops box:

Sakuma Drops

The design of the Sakuma Drops box has changed 13 times over more than 100 years of history. This is the timeline where you can appreciate its evolution until today:

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