Japanese kitchen utensils

Japanese kitchen utensils have been drawing more and more attention around the world.
Originally, the Japanese knife cuts well, which has been highly appreciated by cooks worldwide. In addition to the Japanese knife, a wide variety of Japanese kitchen utensils have started being valued around the world.

“Japanese kitchen utensils are meticulously manufactured and have a variety of selections in size. They are some of the aspects why Japanese kitchen utensils are highly supported worldwide.

Daisuke Kumazawa, fourth-generation owner of Kamaasa Shouten, a long-standing store specialized in kitchen utensils established in 1908, in Kappabashi, Tokyo. Kumazawa often displays his selected items at exhibitions held in overseas countries such as Paris.
Kumazawa says, “What we Japanese take it for granted sometimes surprises people in different countries”.

For example, their store, Kamaasa Shouten handles over 1,000 knives in more than 80 kinds, which is an astonishing number not only for foreigners but also the Japanese. However, it is not limited only to Japanese knives. Items such as bowls, strainers and trays also have a wide variety of selections. Kumazawa says that this very user-friendliness of Japanese items may be one of the reasons why they are well received around the world.

According to Kumazawa, there exist strenuous efforts being made by Japanese cooks behind an increasing popularity of the “user-friendliness” of kitchen utensils.

“There are so many Japanese cooks who have been playing an important role in the kitchens at many famous restaurants around the world. When they let a fellow cook use their knives, they are very surprised at how easily they can cut ingredients. This is how foreigners start being interested in Japanese knives,” says Kumazawa.

He added, “The fundamental approach is different between Japanese knives and western ones. One of the expressions that is frequently used when using Japanese knife is “Sashimi wo hiku” (slide a knife horizontally against fish meat for sashimi, by which you can cut fish meat delicately and beautifully). In contrast, western knives are intended to use vertically against meat.

Because of a lot of Japanese successful cooks and highlight shed on molecular gastronomy, delicacy is a sought-after factor in the global food industry more than ever before. Kumazawa analyzes that, backed by this world trend, tons of cooks have found Japanese kitchen utensils useful all the more.

Having said that, you can purchase a complete set of kitchen utensils at a very reasonable price when you go to so called a hundred-yen store. Also, quality utensils require extensive care on a regular basis. Even so, why do you still need to use good and quality utensils? “The answer to that question lies in ‘growing’ of those utensils”, says Kumazawa in his book released recently.

He added, “From the moment of purchase, some utensils start following a path to deterioration. If you purchase this kind of utensils, you have to keep purchasing an alternative when it ruins. On the other hand, if you purchase a good and quality one, the longer you use, the better hand touch it would give to you, which gives a profound and even glamorous atmosphere to its appearance.” (excerpt from “Kamazasa Shouten’s guide to ‘kitchen utensils’”)

Of course, you can expect a lot of benefits in practical aspects by using good and quality utensils – you can not only cook ingredients tender but also use the items for tens of years, even for the rest of your life. From that perspective, it would be recommended for you to consider a choice of what price range would be best suited to your lifestyle and values.

For example, if an expensive material is used to the handle of a knife or if special design is put on the blade of a knife, the price tends to be expensive. However, the materials and design are not directly linked to sharpness of a blade. In other words, higher price cannot necessarily be translated as good quality. You should go to a specialty store and listen to explanation you need to know from an expert before making a big decision. In the internet, you’re recommended to check the specialized article as follows,

Kamaasa Shoten’s policy is to focus on letting customers know about the real nature of each utensils. They not only show them the place of manufacturing and the process of manufacturing but also by hold a seminar to explain the details and a lecture on how to take care of them both at their store in Japan and at the exhibitions overseas.

Kumazawa concluded, “I always put a tremendous effort into selling a knife to a person”.

What’s the difference between “Omotenashi” and “service”?

Do you think it’s true that the Japanese have a heart of “omotenashi”? Today, we’d like to introduce three Omotenashi spirits that Japanese ladies and gentlemen need to remember.

What “Omotenashi” is all about? 

It’s one of the bad things about the Japanese to be willing to use a certain word without deeply thinking its meaning just because it’s popular.

(1) Polite expression for a Japanese verb “motenasu” — being hospitable to guest

“Omotenasi” as it is known today, comes from a Japanese verb “motenasu”, meaning “entertain a guest”. We use this verb when saying “Kyaku wo motenasu” (we entertain a guest). The source of “motenasu” comes from “to achieve what you want by means of something”, which refers to how to treat a guest or treatment that one offers a guest. By “something”, it means two kinds of things; both visible and invisible.

(2) “Uraomotenashi” — straightforward and truthful

As the Japanese word “ura-omotenashi” means itself, it signifies a welcome extended to a guest with a truthful mind. These above two meaning 1) and 2) are generally thought to be an origin of “omotenashi”.

What is “Omotenashi” spirit? 

(1) You need to take care of others beyond their expectations

Can you see the difference between “omotenashi” and “service”? When a waiter brings you an oshibori (a small damp towel to wipe dirty on hands) at a restaurant, it’s classified into “service”, so is the case with when a waitress lays out a futon for you at a Japanese traditional hotel.

What makes the difference between “omotenashi” and “service” then?
If we can take the case above in explaining omotenashi, when a waiter brings the small towel at a restaurant, if he says, “I know you’ve worked so hard today. You must have been tired. I hope you could have a good rest” or something similar, it’s supposed to be “omotenashi”. When a waitress puts a message card with kind words written something like “I’m hoping that you have a good sleep!” just next to a futon she’s just prepared, you can call it “omotenashi”.
In other words, to the extent that a customer can imagine what treatment they receive is no more than “service”. “Omotenashi” is some extra care extended to customers and should give them an unexpected pleasant experience.
“omotenashi” purely comes from warm feelings and sincerity extended to others. Only those who can extend sensible thoughtfulness to others can be real ladies and gentlemen.

(2) You should never expect return

In overseas countries, when you receive service at a restaurant, you are supposed to give some tips to a waiter/waiteress. They pay tips as service fees provided by the person who served your table (not compulsorily but voluntarily though). How about Japan? From 5-star restaurants/hotels to convenience stores at sideways, on one level or another, every customer is treated politely and equally for free of charge. Only those who can extend sensible thoughtfulness to others can be ladies and gentlemen

It’s one of the good points about the Japanese to pay respect and to be polite to others. This is exactly what “omotenashi” is all about. This is not limited only to business. Being polite to others with expecting no return is “omotenashi”. Those who can do this are ladies and gentlemen.

(3) You should set aside time for “consideration”

Yes, we’ve learned that what “omotenashi” attitude should be like. Having said that, it would be difficult to suddenly change our everyday behavior. What’s important here is to keep that in your mind as your credo and to make it a rule to behave in line with that. You need to be generous enough to be sensible to others. Especially, almost all the people spending their entire day working very hard might not have time to contemplate in their everyday life.

Regardless of nationality, it is said that people who were referred to as ladies and gentlemen in the past loved to discuss philosophy. It is because that they could become to look at a lot of things from different perspectives, enabling them to be flexible and responsive enough to deal with day-to-day situation.

There are so many ways to nurture your personality – being absorbed in reading, or going to the museum to admire great pieces of work, for example. The best way to be a real lady or gentleman is to start with looking at true self and to make an effort so that we’d be able to extend true “omotenashi” mind to others.

Kimono as the Japanese culture

Kunio Yanagida (July 31, 1875-August 8, 1962), known as the father of Japanese native folkloristics, or minzokugaku, analyzed the Japanese culture focusing on a cyclical rhythm comprised of two different types of events: “hare” and “ke”.
Events of “hare” includes “shogatsu” (new year holidays), “obon” (a unique vacation season in summer to welcome spirits of their ancestors) and any other extraordinary events while “ke” means just ordinary daily life. Yanagida pointed out that boundary between “hare” and “ke” blurred as Japan modernized itself. This trend has also been observed in the world of Kimono.

Kimono made of tsumugi is supposed to be no more than daily clothing

Good example is Kimono made of tsumugi.
“Ohshima tsumugi and Yuuki tsumugi is made with very traditional technique, which makes some of them very expensive all the more. Having said that, tsumugi was originally made of thread coming from waste cocoons which had no use of producing raw silk even though it’s categorized as ‘silk fabric’, it was meant for peasants’ daily clothing”, said Taizo Takahashi, owner of a high-end kimono store in Kyoto. Takahashi’s late father opened the store in Kyoto. Takahashi opened his flag store in Ginza, Tokyo in 2001. He has also presented kimono to the Imperial family and worked on Kabuki costumes.

He also added, “Surprisingly enough, some people choose tsumugi Kimono and wear Fukuro Obi, obi used for extraordinary events, on the occasion of tea ceremony. Even if it’s expensive and beautiful, I think it’s not just appropriate to wear tsumugi on formal and official occasions like a tea ceremony. It might be acceptable to put on tsumugi on the occasion of a personal casual tea party or so-called oyose chakai (a large tea party); however, it would be safe and recommended to wear Kimono of better quality such as houmongi or tsukesage which are more suitable for formal events like hatsugama.”

Takahashi maintains that as long as the Chado (tea ceremony) contains the word “do”, it falls into a category of culture which attaches a great importance to traditional practice. If something deviates from its standard, it looks strange and inappropriate. Even if you use obi of best quality, you can never upgrade the class of tsumugi. In addition, you just can’t wear Kimono and obi each of which comes from a different class.

You have to pick up appropriate class of Kimono for seeing a kabuki play

For those who attend not only tea ceremony, but also kabuki play seeing, it used to be a common sense to pick up an appropriate class of Kimono.

“It is said that Okujochu (a woman in waiting in the inner part of a lord’s mansion in the Edo period) and Gonaigi (a wife of an influential merchant) changed Kimono many times just to see a play. Especially at a time when a show with an all-star cast was held at Minamiza in Kyoto, almost all the audience had their Kimono customized for the special occasion. Even now, some ladies wear irotomesode or houmongi to visit the first day or closing day of a performance of announcing the succession to another’s stage name. Their presence gives added grace to the occasion itself and the venue”, said Takahashi.

He continued, “I think it’s OK now to wear casual clothing for kabuki seeing since the times have changed. You don’t necessarily have to be sensitive to a class of Kimono to go to kabuki plays which are for amusement. At least, you need to be aware of that it’s just not appropriate to wear yukata or coordinate a frilled collar with your Kimono when going to Kabuki-za, the greatest authority in the entertainment field.”

Drawing a line between the area that requires a clear-cut demarcation between “hare” and “ke” and the area that doesn’t necessarily need distinction can be interpreted as making a distinction between the two in a way.

In spite of Takahashi’s sense of crisis, more and more people have cared less about grade of kimono to wear on the occasions such as wedding ceremony and reception which require highest rank of dress code.
It was not only mothers of a newly-wed couple, but also married women in the law who attended a ceremony and reception used to wear kurotomesode.
To our regret, the order and production quantity of the kurotomesode have been on the decline. This is because younger couples no longer ask anyone to be their Nakodo (the go-between who arranges the match between a man and a woman for their marriage) for their wedding. Also, other than mothers of a couple, less and less women wear kurotomesode on such occasions.

Black is not unglamorous at all.

One of the reasons why kurotomesode has become less popular than before is that people are seated at a table at a wedding reception. Here in Japan, guests used to get down on their knees on the floor so the patterns located around the knees on the kimono were seen. But at a table, we can only see the chest area without knee area at a table. This is why many women have found it somber and become less willing to wear kurotomesode.

Takahashi pointed out, “The idea itself is not correct. “Black” is the noblest color encompassing all the colors. Up until the Edo period, dying kimono with the color of beautiful black required considerable degree of efforts – from extracting liquid from a betal palm tree to using it for iron mordanting.

It was not until the Edo period that black-dying technique called “sandoguro” using chemical dye was established. This “sandoguro” dying technique made it possible to mass-produce quality kurotomesode. Dye artisan, especially who dyed kimono with the color of black used to be regarded as a job of higher rank.

Although it is kurotomesode that are the most formal kimono for married women, according to protocol, they are not allowed to wear when you’re invited to the Imperial court.

“Instead of kurotomesode, married women wear irotomesode on the occasions when they are invited to Imperial Court. It was my father, the late head of the family, made the first irotomesode and paved the way for it to establish itself as one new genre of ebamono.
On the day when Empress Michiko left her parents’ home to get married to Empress Akihito, the mother of Her Highness, Mrs. Tomiko Shouda saw her off at the porch wearing irotomesode. I’m humbly proud of the fact that my father made that her irotomesode.”

As Kunio Yanagida once said, boundary between one-time “hare” and “ke” blurred. It’s also true that new “hare” and “ke” have been being generated at the same time. What supports them is nothing but the Japanese culture and tradition.

What is a Japanese beauty of style?

Almost all of the traditional architecture seen in Western countries or China are decorative. In contrary, Japanese ones are “plain” or “reserved”.
Japanese traditional architecture is no more than a sub branch of the Chinese’s mainstream from a global point of view. It’s true that Japan had been influenced by the Chinese architecture even before Buddhist architecture but it was noteworthy that Japan imported Chinese architecture in an outstanding scale in the Asuka and Kamakura era.
But once again, if you compare the Chinese architecture to the Japanese’s, there’re huge differences between the two.

Especially, if you compare the architecture established in the Nara and Kamakura era when Japan was enthusiastic about importing foreign style of culture to the Chinese counterparts in the same period, you can easily notice there’s few things in common.
For example, the simple beauty of the Japanese buildings such as the hon-do (main hall ) of Shin-Yakushi-ji Temple and Hakkaku-do Hall of Eizan-ji Temple in Nara can never be seen in the Chinese architecture in the same period. Elaborate techniques of the Zenshu-yo style placed into every corner of the Japanese architect are totally different from the Chinese ones.

From 19th through 20th century, Japan faced an overwhelmingly advanced culture of the West, which made Japan strongly feel that it must intake their industrial and military technology as soon as possible. For the Japanese, “modernization” means “westernization” and vice versa.
In order for Japan to move ahead with modernization after the Meiji Restoration, they had to embark on their new architecture project suited to the new society. They mainly relied it on engineers or architects from foreign countries.

The style of architecture seen in these construction in the initial Meiji period is so called European eclecticism originated in 19th century. In Europe, the history of Modernism Architecture started with the criticism against the old-style eclecticism; however, this eclecticism itself laid the groundwork for the modernization in case of Japan.
On the other hand, Japan had a great influence on the modern architecture in the West.
It is widely known that a German Architect, Bruno Taut (1880 – 1938) wrote that he was so impressed to see the way the shrine appeared when viewed from the outside totally matched the inner configuration of The Grand Shrine of Ise. He added that he felt as if a bolt of lightning had hit him when he saw it the first time.

Up until then, it had been very typical for the Western architecture to have the façade decorated like a fancy cake. It was not until the beginning of 20th century that a building that was more functional and has a matching interior design with exterior, comprised of reinforced steels and glasses started to appear in town.
Adolf Loos from Czechoslovakia (1870 – 1933) and Richard Joseph Neutra, born in Austria and became famous in the United States (1892 – 1970) are also well known as the architects who had been highly influenced by Japan.

Richard Joseph Neutra once visited the Katsura Imperial Villa and admired the construction, saying “I’ve finally met what I’d been looking for throughout my life. That perfectly matched my sense of space as well as my sensitivity to nature.”

Bruno Tauto described in his book that “Japan inspired Europe to a great extent. When the modern architecture started to gain popularity in Europe, it was the Japanese residential architectural styles that added the greatest driving force to it. Their architectural style is based on functionality and minimalism – big windows and storage space in terms of functionality, and its minimalist design pure and simple.” That Japan’s influence has been outstanding in no-frill functional western furniture as well.
It’s very interesting to see the contrast between Japan and the western countries at that time. Japan was trying hard to modernize itself by introducing western architectural styles while the western countries found Japanese simplicity and functionality beautiful and started introducing in their architectural styles.

Made-in-Japan “Umami”

We have been seeing the word “umami” these days. The word is spelled as it is “UMAMI” in foreign countries and has become global common language.

Since Umami was born in Japan, the Japanese appears to be more sensitive to umami. One company had conducted a survey to see to what extent Japanese can distinguish Umami from other tastes. 71% of Japanese answered correctly while 34% of foreigners could.

Speaking of umami, you would immediately think of broth or dashi in Japanese, used for the Japanese cuisine. Actually, umami is used for a wide variety of food and produces.
Tons of reporters on gourmet-related topics often say, “I can feel umami” or “This way of cooking has brought out the umami of the raw ingredients”.

What the “umami” is all about?

Actually, the word “umami” has two meanings. The first one is used for expressing how delicious the food is. In Japanese, we say “umai”(adjective) when we find food tasty. For the Japanese, “umami” is one of the words to express deliciousness of food. From that perspective, it can be said that you can use the word “umami” for any raw ingredients.

The second one is used to mean a savory taste and defines itself as the fifth taste after sweet, sour, salt and bitter.
This umami was found by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University in 1908. This is the taste born in Japan.

As explained above, umami has two meanings. Both of the meanings are frequently used, which makes it all the more confusing.
In this article, however, in distinction from “umami” used to express “deliciousness” in the Japanese language, we use the word “umami” solely to express the fifth taste.

Needless to say, it’s “umami” in the second meaning that has drawn a worldwide attention these days. At the world expo held in Milan, Italy, in 2015, the exhibition provided by the Japan Pavillion was mainly on the Japanese cuisine including broth (dashi) and umami.

More and more airline companies started serving in-flight meals making the best use of umami. On the plane, we have a decreased sense of taste due to changes in atmospheric pressure. Conventionally, one of the tastes “salt” has been used to supplement the decreased taste. Recent fliers are inclined to be more health-conscious; therefore, they started calling for healthy alternatives. Then, “umami” was spotted as a replacement for salt.

Anyway, why are the Japanese so sensitive to umami in the first place?
“The Japanese people have had fish as source of protein for a very long time. Japan is an island country and is surrounded by the sea, which makes it easy for the Japanese to eat fish in everyday life. You can get a lot of broth (dashi) from seafood and that broth contains tons of umami. This is how the Japanese have developed and sharpened the sense of taste.”, said Ryuichi Suzuki, CEO of the company conducting the research on umami mentioned above and the author of the book, titled “Nihonjin no mikaku wa sekaiichi”, (Japanese has the most delicate sense in the world).

As a matter of fact, there are variety kinds of umami around the world. Fish sauce such as nam pla and nuoc mam in South East Asia and broth taken from meat bone in China to name a few.
To be more specific, umami is a kind of amino acid including glutamic acid, inosinic acid and guanylic acid. Glutamic acid is highly contained in food such as Konbu (Seaweed), tomato and asparagus while inosinic acid in Bonito flakes, beef and pork.

Surprisingly enough, glutamic acid is also contained in green tea. When we use “umami” to express the taste of green tea, it means not only the taste itself, but also “umami”, the fifth taste.

Yoriyuki Nakamura, Project Professor of University of Shizuoka, Tea Science Center, says, “The taste of green tea mainly consists of caffeine, amino acid (L-Theanine and glutamic acid) and catechin. Especially umami of green tea comes from amino acid and bitterness from catechin. Even subtle changes will be added to umami of green tea depending on how they were cultivated and how they were poured. From way back, the Japanese are persistent to umami of green tea and have been enjoying its delicate taste.”

The Japanese have a very keen and delicate sense of taste toward umami. According to the book written by Ryuichi Suzuki, the Japanese is the only people who can tell how sweet rice is. To take advantage of being a Japanese, we should enjoy all kinds of umami.


The meaning of “wabi” and “sabi”

There must be a lot of people conjuring up the words “wabi” and “sabi”, hearing of the spirit of tea ceremony, but how many of them can give an explanation on exactly what these two words “wabi” and “sabi” mean?
Here are the excerpts from an interview with Mr. Soushin Kimura, author of the book, titled “Rikyu Nyumon”.

“ ‘Wabi’ (the beauty to be found in sparseness and simplicity) and ‘sabi’ (elegant and quiet simplicity) were developed from the Japanese noun ‘sabishisa’ (loneliness, desolation) and ‘wabishisa” (lonesome, cheerless) with aesthetic and conceptual meaning added. ‘Wabi’ and ‘sabi’ are often mixed up with each other but each of them has a different meaning”.

Some of you must have been surprised to know the fact that the two words have a different meaning. I’d like to take this opportunity to give you more detailed information on these words which tend to be treated in a lump especially in daily conversation….

Kimura continued,“’Sabi’ is the word meant to describe the beauty of physical appearance. The things in this world get rusted, dirty and cracked as time goes by. Generally, it is regarded as deterioration but a lot of beauty can be found in the layers of the changes at the same time.
‘Wabi’ is positive state of mind that provides generous feeling to accept such rust and dirt, or even to try to enjoy them. In other words, ‘wabi’ is the attitude of finding the beauty from ‘sabi’.”

“Sabi” shows the physical appearance while “wabi” means how enriched one’s personality is. Since “wabi” and “sabi” share the values like “two sides of the same coin”, they always come in a combination. Some people say that it’s getting more and more important for Japanese people to be able to speak about this kind Japanese sense of beauty logically and substantially in order to play an active role in the world.

Kimura added, “It is often said that the Japanese traditional culture is supported by sensitivity and emotions. I sometimes make a lecture at museums and art festivals overseas. On those occasions, I meet curators and clients. They once told me that “the Japanese sense of beauty cannot be explained logically as we do with the western culture”. However, I don’t agree with this opinion. In order to make the “unspoken sense of beauty” visible, we come up with a word to express a different and various sense of values that exist around the unspoken beauty as if we draw an auxiliary line. Such sensitivity has been nurtured traditionally here in Japan.”

It is often said that the Japanese sense of beauty can’t be expressed only with “wabi” and “sabi”. The words such as “yatsushi”, “suki”, “basara” and “keren” are also very important keywords that should always be taken into account when speaking of the Japanese traditional culture. For sure, we Japanese must have heard of each of them once or twice. …By the way, do you think you know the real meanings of these words?