The Guardians of Katsuoji

I’ve been to quite a few temples in Japan over the past several years, but no matter how many I visit, they will never fail to amaze me. The architecture, the composition, the structure, the minute details – everything about a temple’s design exemplifies the years of careful thought, consideration, and purpose that were interweaved into its development.

My first visit to Minoh’s Katsuoji Temple was no different than previous temple visits – in fact, Katsuoji may be one of the most beautiful I’ve been to yet, especially since I went while the maple leaves were still in color.




IMG_9154Though Katsuoji’s elaborate gardens, freshwater streams, and its mist-shrouded lake made for an unforgettable experience, my first time visiting Minoh’s hidden gem was more memorable than past temple visits for a different reason…IMG_9105IMG_9113

The dolls…

IMG_9106I first spotted these dolls upon walking onto the main bridge, where a group of 5 were gathered along the barrier, casually surveying people as they passed by. And the dolls weren’t only beside the bridge; these little figurines were scattered all over the temple – literally, everywhere!IMG_9119There were dolls along the ground, on pillars, barriers, even in the trees. As I wandered Katsuoji’s grounds, I grew fascinated by the sheer abundance of these pint-sized, toy-like creatures.IMG_9133And so, upon arriving home, I did some research: thanks to the ever-loyal Google search engine, I not only discovered the name of these fascinating little figures, but quite a bit of interesting information on them too. Known in Japan as “Daruma dolls,” they’re traditionally modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen tradition of Buddhism. Though they are typically red in color and depict a bearded man (Dharma), each doll varies in color and design depending on the region and artist.

In fact, because each Daruma is hand painted, no two Daruma have the exact same design.


Not only do Daruma dolls make for an adorable display, they are seen as a symbol of perseverance and good luck as well! Because of their bottom-heavy design, they return to an upright position when tilted over, a characteristic that has come to symbolize the ability to overcome adversity. The doll embodies the popular Japanese proverb: Nanakorobi yaoki, or “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”

Because the dolls symbolize success, they are often purchased to act as encouragement for people to continue pursuing specific goals. Upon purchasing, the doll’s eyes are both blank white; the purchaser will then select a goal and paint in one of the figure’s two eyes. Then, once the desired goal is achieved, the second eye is filled in. People often bring their dolls back to the temple where they were originally purchased and place them anywhere and everywhere – hence the hundreds of scattered Daruma dolls throughout Katsuoji. IMG_9128At the end of the year, all the Daruma are brought back to the temple they were purchased from for a traditional burning ceremony. This ceremony, called the daruma kuyō (だるま供養), is held once a year, usually right after New Year’s Day. Afterwards, people purchase new Daruma dolls to bring home for a lucky start to the year.

Sadly, I didn’t have the chance to attend a burning ceremony this year. But to be honest, I don’t think I would have enjoyed watching these little bearded dolls burst into flames anyway – they’re way too cute to be destroyed, in my opinion. IMG_9140

Now that I know the history behind the Darumas, I’m still looking forward to greeting them at my next temple visit. Hopefully, the next temple I go to will have as many Darumas as Kastuoji.


For directions to Katsuoji temple, click here.

My fascination with wrinkly persimmons

It’s 柿 season in Japan!


柿, pronounced “kaki” is the Japanese word for persimmons. If you’ve never seen one before, they’re perfectly round, the color of pumpkins, and have cute clover-shaped stems. Persimmons aren’t very common where I’m from in the States. I rarely saw persimmons in my local supermarket, and if I did, they were either expensive or of mediocre quality, or both. But in Japan, persimmons are everywhere – literally! Not only is there a section in every grocery store dedicated to persimmons, there are also persimmon trees in nearly every backyard and all along the streets, which means that there are persimmons on the ground sometimes too.

At first, I was shocked by the sudden explosion in persimmons. As I’d make my way through the produce section during my weekly trip to the grocery store and come face to face with yet another persimmon display, I found myself questioning the appeal. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the taste of persimmons, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to purchase a pack of six.

But everything changed when I tried my first 干し柿、or hoshigaki – dried Hachiya persimmons:



I know what you’re thinking – ew, right? I know, I know. That’s what I thought too the first time I saw one. In comparison to their fresh counterparts, hoshigaki are shriveled and wrinkly and much less appealing in appearance. But what they lack in presentation, they make up for 10 fold in taste.

As dramatic as it sounds, when I say that my first bite of a hoshigaki was life-changing, I’m not exaggerating! It was unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before. The insides were nothing like a fruit at all – they were more the texture of softened jelly. The chewiness of the outer skin, in addition to the jelly-like insides, provided a unique and wholly satisfying bite. The hoshigaki itself was also incredibly sweet, like sucking on a spoonful of pure honey.

Unfortunately, hoshigaki are twice the price of regular persimmons – about $8 or $9 for four. Desperate for another succulent dried persimmon, but unwilling to cough up nearly 1000 yen, I wondered if I’d be able to make my own instead. I mean, leaving something out to dry can’t be too difficult, right?

Well, it turned out to be much harder and a lot more intensive than I thought – making hoshigaki requires care, effort, attention, and quite a bit of time. In fact, the process is so detailed and so intricate that I’d go as far to say that the act of making hoshigaki is an art.

Other articles online do a much better job at explaining the process than I can; I highly recommend reading this one if you’re interested in learning more. But in short, hoshigaki are made by hanging peeled Hachiya persimmons for about two weeks until they’ve shriveled and formed a white coating on the surface from natural sugars.

HoshigakioutsideMost hoshigaki are made on farms, where they can be mass produced by the hundreds, but occasionally, I’ll find some hanging outside of someone’s home. Here’s a picture of a balcony I pass on the way to work every morning:


Once I realized how difficult it is to make hoshigaki from scratch, I gave up on trying to attempt it myself. Splurging every so often on a pack at the store is much simpler than hanging them by a string on a bamboo rod from my balcony.

I have a strong feeling that hoshigaki won’t be available in stores when I return to the States, so I very well may end up needing to try drying persimmons from scratch in the future! For now, though, I’ll let the experienced farmers do the hard work for me.


Mochi-tsuki in Minoh

When it comes to preparing for the new year, I think it’s safe to say that Japan does a pretty good job. For weeks leading up to New Year’s, and on the day itself of course, Japan has lots of festivals, events, and traditions that have long been a part of the country’s history and culture, and which just about every family in Japan faithfully participates in – like cooking traditional New Year’s food called O-sechi, or decorating the house with a statue made of rice cakes and a tangerine.

But out of the many traditions in Japan meant to start off the New Year on the right foot, one in particular has always stood out to me – mochi-tsuki. After first hearing about this country-wide event, I knew that my year in Japan would not be complete if I didn’t attend a mochi-tsuki.

Mochi-tsuki is an important traditional event where friends and families gather together to pound rice to make mochi, or rice cakes. It’s usually performed at the end of the year around December 25th to 28th. Historically, mochi became a popular food to make for New Year’s since it keeps for a fairly long time at room temperature and is also a convenient, portable food. Japanese people eat homemade mochi at the start of the year, usually grilled and flavored with soy sauce.

Though there are quite a few mochi-tsuki festivals throughout Osaka meant to attract large crowds, the closest temple hosting a mochi-tsuki was at least two hours away from me, and would’ve require multiple train rides to get there. Luckily, though, I happened to find out about a smaller mochi-tsuki event happening in Minoh!

So on the morning of December 28th, I took a short bus ride to the address where the event was set to take place, and ended up stumbling upon a small gathering of a few families, several young adults, and a handful of children and elderly people in the middle of a neighborhood. When I arrived, I could tell that everyone was surprised to see me there, but they were very polite and welcoming. One of the attendees even took the time to explain the mochi-making process – which is super simple, actually.

First, a special type of sticky rice that’s been soaked in water overnight is steamed in metal crates until the rice is cooked through and soft.

IMG_8174Once the rice is ready for pounding, it’s placed in an usu, or a large bowl made of wood or stone. The one at the event I went to was made of stone. IMG_8141A heavy, hammer-like mallet made of wood is used to pound the rice into paste. IMG_8140Once the steamed rice is placed in the usu, the pounding begins!

IMG_E8144IMG_E8145Pounding requires a two person effort – while one person pounds the rice with the mallet, another shifts the rice in the usu to ensure evenness and prevent the mochi from sticking to the sides.

The steamed rice is shaped and pounded until it becomes a large, sticky mass, which usually takes about 10-15 minutes. Once the desired consistency is reached, it’s ready for shaping.

The pounders transferred the sticky heap into a wooden crate and brought the crate to an elderly lady who began shaping it into bite-sized cakes.

IMG_E8191The process continued for a few more hours after that until all of the steamed rice was pounded and formed into hundreds of bite-sized mochi cakes, and then set aside to be stored until New Year’s. It was a fascinating and memorable experience overall, and I’m grateful that the small gathering of locals who put on the event were quick to welcome me into their group this year.

I’m happy to say that I can officially cross “attend a mochi-tsuki” off my Japan bucket list. 🙂

Frohe Weihnachten!

Up until this year, I’ve celebrated Christmas at home in the States with my family. It’s pretty similar ever year; we eat a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and Pillsbury Doughboy biscuits, gather around the Christmas tree to talk about  Jesus’ birth, open up our presents one by one, and then spend the rest of the afternoon preparing enough turkey and Boursin mashed potatoes to feed a village (or two) – a classic, comforting, American-esque Christmas day.

And that’s how I expected to spend my Christmas every year… not at a German night market eating seasoned bratwurst and drinking mulled wine in the middle of Osaka, Japan.

But that’s what happened!


One of the largest winter events in all of Osaka, this German-themed Christmas market is held every year from November 17th to December 25th under the Umeda Sky Building, where guests can wander among colorful, brightly lit stalls offering quintessential German fare, from seasoned Thuringian Bratwurst to a piping hot sauerkraut soup, to foaming mugs of Krombacher beer, to Haribo gummies.

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With such a wide range of appetizing German-inspired treats on display, it was difficult to choose what I wanted to eat – I totally would’ve bought every gingerbread cookie, bag of candied almonds, and imported wine available for purchase if I had the stomach (and the money) for it. Though, my pork-based soup and sausage were surprisingly satisfying, so I managed to abstain from buying up the whole market.

Alongside the food and drink stalls, there were also several offering all sorts of handcrafted items, such as toys, ornaments, cutlery, and intricate sculptures – imported straight from Germany, of course! (Or, at least I’d like to believe they were.)

IMG_E7857Though I was tempted to purchase an ornament or two, I couldn’t bring myself to dish out the equivalent of $25+ for a wooden Santa Clause the size of my thumb. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed browsing the wide variety of trinkets and Christmas-y knickknacks – and sneaking a few photos of them too.

I must admit that tinsel-decorated stalls selling hot wine on tap is difficult to beat, but I’d say that my favorite part of the market had to be the Christmas tree standing at the center of the market, complete with animated lights and a golden star on top. Being greeted and welcomed by a 50 foot tall Christmas tree as I sipped from my stomach-warming, cinnamon-scented beverage made the event all the more memorable.

And it was reassuring to know that there will always be a few things about Christmas that remain constant, no matter where I am in the world.


In comparison to the last 20 years of my life, my Christmas experience this year was one-of-a-kind. I do have to say that I still very much prefer spending the holidays with my family (and I’d still choose roast turkey over sausage any day), but this is one Christmas that I know I’ll remember for a long, long time.


Fried Chicken for Christmas

I’m spending the holidays in Japan this year. And in Japan’s case, the Christmas season means shopping malls packed past capacity, twinkly lights strewn along store fronts, classic Christmas jingles ringing through supermarkets and… Kentucky Fried Chicken.

This is the KFC near the elementary school I work at. (It also happens to offer an all-you-can-eat buffet – one of the only two branches in the whole country to offer all-you-can-eat! But that is a post for another time.)

The first time someone asked me “So are you planning on going to KFC for Christmas?”, I was stunned, startled, almost offended! (And understandably so.) No offense to KFC-lovers, but I wouldn’t go to Kentucky Fried Chicken for lunch on an average weekday, let alone on Christmas. A bucket of questionably sourced chicken deep fried in dirt-cheap, chemically modified oil is not the first thing that comes to mind when I imagine a lavish Christmas feast.

But in Japan, it is!


Hah, and you thought I was kidding, didn’t you?


Believe it or not, going to KFC on Christmas day has become a nationwide tradition. Every year on the beloved holiday, friends and families line up at their local Kentucky Fried Chicken, huddle around a red and white bucket of battered drumsticks and wings, and enjoy a hearty, soul-warming meal together. (Here’s an article from BBC if you’re interested in reading about how this strange country-wide festivity got its start.)

KFC takes full advantage of the tradition each year by offering deluxe Christmas sets, ranging from 10 to 50 dollars a set. Apparently, though, these sets are so popular that you need to make reservations in advance on KFC Japans’ website, indicating your order and your exact dine-in time, if you want your own on Christmas day.

Curious about what a typical set could get me, I browsed KFC Japans’ site to peruse their seasonal menu options. And, to be honest, it actually doesn’t look half bad. Their most expensive set – a whopping 5100 yen – includes a whole roasted chicken leg, 4 pieces of their original fried chicken, a fresh salad with sliced ham, and a triple berry tiramisu cake.


Though I admit it may look a bit more appetizing than I expected, the set still doesn’t seem worth the price to me.

(*For those on a budget like me, though, a fried chicken Christmas feast is still very much attainable: even supermarkets and convenience stores offer up their own seasonal specials!)IMG_E7736

A flyer advertising “premium chicken” sets at my local convenience store.

Since first hearing about this odd Japanese custom, I’ve overcome my initial shock and have gradually begun to warm up to the idea, but I think I still prefer my classic slow roasted 40 pound turkey and mashed potatoes with cranberry sauce for my Christmas dinner of choice. I’m all for participating in local customs and traditions, but this is one tradition I don’t mind abstaining from this year.

(Of course, I have nothing against KFC-on-Christmas-goers though; for those who are in Japan during the holidays and are wanting for a fried chicken feast, I offer my full support!)

“Whale Day”

Japan has been hunting whale for centuries – for food, and also for the sake of the practice, which has long been an integral part of Japanese culture. In the last few decades though, Japan has faced quite a bit of criticism from abroad (and from its own citizens) over whale hunting, due to the rapid decline of endangered whale species in surrounding waters. Though whale hunting has decreased dramatically since the 1960’s, the practice still continues: certain species are illegal to hunt, but a few, like the minke whale, are not deemed an endangered species and are still hunted on occasion for their meat and distributed throughout Japan. Which, in effect, is how whale ended up on every lunch tray in every junior high and elementary school in Minoh on a sunny Monday afternoon.

Yup, you read that right – whale on every plate.

Once a year, all of the junior high and elementary schools in Minoh serve whale for lunch. Affectionately deemed “whale day” by my fellow JET English teachers, I’ve been anticipating this strange and mildly concerning event for weeks now, unable to fathom the idea that the city would be serving whale to its students for lunch. Yet, sure enough, Whale Day arrived – along with enough whale meat to feed a city’s worth of kids.

Because of dietary restrictions, I don’t eat the lunch that my elementary school provides daily for teachers and students, so I wasn’t able to taste the whale myself. But, luckily, I was able to sneak a few pictures of my fellow teachers’ trays before they were claimed.(There’s no way I’d let Whale Day pass me by without at least taking a photo or two!)

On the menu: soup with carrots, konnyaku, daikon, and seaweed simmered in a dashi broth, rice with dried seaweed, a carton of milk, and deep fried whale meat

I also asked a few other JET’s what the meat tasted like. They described it as “tough” and “gamey” – much more like red meat than fish. One person said that it tasted similar to deer. Overall, everyone agreed that they didn’t dislike it, and wouldn’t decline a second helping if offered, but weren’t blown away by the taste or the texture. Nor was anyone interested in searching after whale meat again in the future.

IMG_E7745At the time, I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to sample a piece, but after hearing my friends’ reports – and after looking at these pictures again – I think it’s safe to say that I’ve gotten over my disappointment.



Preparing for my first winter in Osaka (on a budget)

I was born and raised in sunny southern California – where the weather is about 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, year round. In January, the temperature can drop to the mid 50’s, but mid 50’s is about as low as it’ll go. So, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve never experienced a real winter before. And when I say real winter, I mean a below 30 degrees F kind of winter, a winter that turns stepping outside into a brave and daring feat – a winter I am grossly under-prepared for… But since I’m living in Japan now, that’s just the kind of winter I’m about to face.

December has only just arrived, and the temperature in Minoh has already begun to plummet. My 8 minute stroll to the bus stop is a challenge already, even with a heavy coat. And a scarf. And gloves.

But, luckily for me – and for the millions of other Osaka residents about to brave an unforgivable winter, Japan has found ways to make these next few bone-chilling months bearable, and I have made it my goal to take advantage of as many of these warmth-inducing solutions as possible.

The first task on my survival checklist was to redo my wardrobe, since all of the clothes I’d brought from home were intended to be worn in an Osaka-n summer, not winter. But, I’m on a teacher’s budget – restocking my closet with a brand new wardrobe wasn’t a possibility. And that’s how I discovered Heat Tech.


Heat Tech is a collection by UNIQLO – a chain of affordable clothing stores in Japan. Heat Tech’s under armor is made from a durable fabric that supposedly retains heat really well. I’d heard positive reviews from several coworkers, so I decided to buy a few articles for myself. And I’m glad I did! The material is surprisingly thin, it’s light, and most importantly, it keeps me warm. And it’s cheap! A long sleeved crew neck T-shirt cost me less than $10.


Though my pair of “ultra warm” leggings have been a big help so far, fabric too has its limits. Clothes can only help retain so much heat, and there are some body parts that need a little more warmth than others. And that’s where these lovely little packs come in:


I got this particular pack of body warming stickers for 100 Yen from a local Daiso, but I’ve seen them stocked at nearly every supermarket and discount store around, often conveniently displayed at the front entrance. All you do is unwrap a package, peel off the back, and stick it anywhere on your body for instant heat. To my surprise, I could still feel a bit of heat from a sticker nearly an hour after I’d peeled it. No idea how that works, but I’m not complaining.

Next – food: I can’t talk about winter without at least mentioning food.

I could go on and on about seasonal winter foods in Japan – nabe alone deserves its own blog post – but I’ll stick with the two winter-friendly snacks that have helped me survive on a budget.

The cheapest, and most abundant, warming winter snack I’ve found is oden at conbinis (convenience stores). Oden, also known as Japan’s traditional winter fast food, is a stew of various ingredients simmered in dashi broth. Ingredients range from potatoes, to skewered meat, to acorn jelly. At conbinis, a large food warmer sits at the front counter, where customers can help themselves to individual oden ingredients – each about 100 Yen. Sometimes, conbinis will have weekly specials that lower prices to 50 Yen!



Though a little pricier than oden, my most favorite cold weather treat is definitely the 焼き芋, or roasted sweet potatoes. Japanese sweet potatoes are a little different from the sweet potatoes you buy in the states. Japanese sweet potatoes have a purple skin and creamy yellow insides. I think they’re also smoother in texture and a little sweeter than U.S. sweet potatoes.

Like oden, they’re everywhere – and they’re always warm. Each sweet potato is fresh and sweet, just the right amount of soft, and quite filling for less than $2 a piece. I’d say that one could work well as a meal by itself. They’re usually near the front entrances of supermarkets, kept hot in a warmer or on a bed of charcoal, often wrapped in individual brown bags. Kind of like this:


Yet another cheap, and quick, option for those in search of relief from the chilly outdoors are vending machines – now well-stocked with tons of hot drinks. In the summer, all of the drinks were cold, but as the temperature began to change, vending machine selections changed too.


I’d say that 100 Yen is not a bad deal for a cozy beverage (or a can of corn consomme soup!). Sometimes, I buy a drink just to act as a hand warmer, when I don’t have my nifty body stickers with me.


And finally, the main reason I’ve been able to survive the cold – my air conditioner, which as I was overjoyed to learn, is also a heater.


I was planning on buying a separate heater for my apartment, which are pretty expensive, but a friend who has been living in Japan for two years now informed me that my air conditioner should have heating functions too. So after work that day, I attempted to decipher my remote control. And sure enough, hidden in the left hand corner, I recognized one of the kanji characters for heat – 暖. (In Japanese, 暖かい means warm.) So, if you ever find yourself needing to operate the dual air conditioning-heater unit in a Japanese apartment, look for 暖房 (pronounced danbou) on your remote control.


Another cool thing I discovered as I was deciphering the cryptic maze that is my remote control is the timing function. All I have to do is set a certain number of hours, and my heater will start up automatically when that number of hours has passed. I set it to start about 30 minutes before I arrive back from work so that I’m greeted by a cozy, heated apartment right when I step inside.


I can’t say that I’m looking forward to the next 3 freezing months, but I will admit that Japan does a pretty good job at trying to make the wintery season – almost – bearable. I might as well enjoy my ready-to-eat perfectly cooked sweet potatoes while I can.

English for Japanese 3rd graders: cookies and cola

English education in Japan usually starts in 5th grade, but Minoh – the city where I’ve been assigned to teach – has their students taking English classes as early as 3rd grade. Minoh even created their own English curriculum for 3rd and 4th graders, since there is no official designated textbook for students younger than 5th/6th in Japan.

So, I’m lucky – all of my classes for 3rd through 6th grade are written out in Minoh’s English textbook. Every lesson for the 45 minute period includes the topic/subject, expressions related to the topic, and target vocabulary words. It also includes a detailed schedule for activities, with time estimations and everything.

Every lesson has a similar structure. First, the teacher (either me, the other English teacher I work with, or the homeroom teacher ((yep, there are 3, sometimes 4!, teachers in the class at the same time)) greets the students, asks them the date, what the weather’s like, and how they’re doing. Usually students respond with I’m tired, or I’m hungry, but occasionally we’ll get a response like I am so angry!

Then, it’s phonics time. We’ll review English words that Japanese speakers have trouble pronouncing by saying the words out loud and asking the students to repeat them back to us multiple times. There’s quite a few sounds in English that students don’t know how to pronounce, like r and l and the low i sound, so phonics gives them a chance to improve their pronunciation. And the younger they can get pronunciation down, the better.

After phonics, it’s time for the actual lesson content. We start by either reviewing vocabulary and expressions from the previous week, or we’ll introduce new English words. Topics are drawn out for about 4-5 weeks, so students have an ample amount of time to practice hearing and speaking the target language over a long period of time.

These past several weeks, the 3rd graders have been learning the names of a bunch of desserts, like pudding and cake, as well as drinks. The specific desserts/drinks we’re required to teach are at the top of the lesson plan:


After reviewing the words and phrases, it’s time for the fun part – games! We play at least one game every class, as a way for students to practice the material, and to keep them active, engaged, and entertained. English isn’t graded in elementary school – it’s more of an elective, like music and home economics. But, it is a graded subject in junior high school, so the intent of elementary English is to ensure students have as high of an opinion of English class as possible. That way, they’ll look forward to continuing their English education after graduating elementary. And playing games is definitely a way to keep their opinion of English high. (Or, neutral, at least.)

This week, we played Lucky Card game. In a nutshell, students get into groups and are given a set of mini vocabulary cards. Each student then picks two cards, shows their neighbor the cards and ask, ‘What do you want? and their neighbor responds, ‘I want_____’ and chooses one of the two cards to take in their own hand. The dialogue continues until the teacher says stop. Then, the teacher picks one card out of the set and calls out the vocab word on that card. Students holding that card get a stamp! (Stamps are a big deal – getting a stamp is probably the highlight of English class for most students.)

IMG_E7387Usually, review and a game or two should take up the 45 minute class. Once the bell rings to mark the end of that period, the students pack up their things, say goodbye, and English is finished for the week.

It isn’t much, but hey as long as the students are learning something – and having fun – I’m happy!

The wonders of conbini drinks

In Japan, convenience stores are called コンビニ、or conbini’s. And unlike convenience stores you find in the States – ie, dingy 7-11’s with a questionable selection of hot dogs on display or the off-name liquor stores you you might see at the corner of an intersection – these conbini’s are always impeccably clean, well-organized, and literally, convenient. They’re fully stocked with every kind of product you can think of, from perfectly hard-boiled eggs, pre-cooked edamame, and vacuum-sealed chicken breasts ready to be sliced up and tossed over a salad, to kitchen and cleaning supplies, to bathroom products and toiletries, you name it. There are even individually packaged white cotton t-shirts for the ever-sweaty salary man.

But, although I am a big fan of hard-boiled eggs that I didn’t have to cook myself, I’d have to say that my favorite thing about conbinis are the drinks.



True, drinks definitely don’t sound as fascinating as the packets of pre-cooked Thai curry in the ready-made-foods aisle, or the essential oils and incense sticks on display next to the ties, but the thing I love about conbini drinks is just how many options there are!


Walk into any store and you’ll find walls stocked with sodas, teas, juices, drinkable yogurts, even fresh-pressed juices. Every conbini usually has the same selection of brands, but I’ve stumbled upon a few that have limited edition drinks too, and one chain even has their own line of much cheaper, store-brand drinks.


By far the most extensive selection is the coffee (though tea comes in close second). There are about a thousand different types of coffee drinks – coffee mixed with half and half, coffee with milk, coffee with milk and sugar, coffee with milk and no sugar, and so on. And of course, there are tons of classic black options too. I can’t say that it compares to the freshly brewed stuff you get at sit-down cafe’s, but for 118 yen each, I’d say they taste pretty good.


And as if walls of canned coffee aren’t enough, there’s also a separate refrigerated section where you can find an even greater selection of lattes, along with lots of different flavored teas, milk-based drinks, and smoothies too.


Yup, even Starbucks coffee and tea lattes have made their way onto conbini shelves. (The Matcha latte isn’t anything special though – way too milky!)


Every time I stop by a conbini, I make an effort to buy a new drink each time. My goal is to try every single type of drink available! (Well, all except for the carton of straight wheat grass powder.) Considering just how many drinks there are, it looks like I have a long way to go.


Good thing I have all year.

Tengu Festival – the only time child abuse is welcomed

Picture a rainy Saturday morning. I’ve just finished getting ready – I washed my dishes after breakfast and started a load of laundry. I’m planning on making a quick trip to Daiso to pick up a few cleaning supplies, like wipes and fabric softener. I have clean the bathroom, buy groceries for the week, and finish up a blog post on my to-do list: your classic, uneventful Saturday. But, as has been a recurring theme for my weekends in Japan, it ended up being the very opposite.

The moment I stepped outside, I came face to face with who I immediately thought to be a member of the Japanese mafia…

He was wearing a long, black robe and, to my horror, a mask – a bright red mask, with menacing eyebrows and an absurdly long nose. A little farther, in the middle of the street, stood a group of three other people dressed in the same black robes and horrid, nightmare-inducing masks.

All I could do was stand, stiff with fear, hoping this masked stranger was not actually a member of a terrorist group, or a hired assassin, or an FBI agent who’d come to arrest me for illegally throwing my trash out at convenience stores… But luckily for me, he was none of those. He simply offered me a nod and then meandered toward the other masked men, who I realized – now that I’d finished overreacting – were laughing and cracking jokes with each other.

Later that day, I eventually learned that the people I’d run into were dressed up for a festival that was happening that night in Minoh called the Tengu Festival, held in honor of Japanese spirits known as tengu.


If you aren’t familiar with what a tengu is, (I definitely wasn’t) here’s an excerpt from its Wikipedia article:

Tengu (天狗, “heavenly dog”) are a type of legendary creature found in Japanese folk religion and are also considered a type of Shinto god (kami) or yōkai (supernatural beings). Although they take their name from a dog-like Chinese demon (Tiangou), the tengu were originally thought to take the forms of birds of prey, and they are traditionally depicted with both human and avian characteristics. The earliest tengu were pictured with beaks, but this feature has often been humanized as an unnaturally long nose, which today is widely considered the tengus defining characteristic in the popular imagination. Buddhism long held that the tengu were disruptive demons and harbingers of war. Their image gradually softened, however, into one of protective, if still dangerous, spirits of the mountains and forests. Tengu are associated with the ascetic practice of Shugendō, and they are usually depicted in the garb of its followers, the yamabushi.

I read online that Tengu Festivals are widespread throughout Japan in the fall. Most festivals typically include a parade featuring impressive statues, as well as Japan’s classic festival street food. Minoh’s annual festival, though, is actually a little different – when the sun starts to set, men dressed up like tengu gather at a specific marked location. And once the locals have arrived at the same place, these tengu start hitting people! Yes, I’m serious. They run around hitting everyone.

They carry these bamboo sticks with tapered ends and hit anyone they can find on the head – usually, children. Apparently, if a child is hit on the head by a tengu, that child receives lifelong blessings. And women receive good fortune too – supposedly getting tapped by a tengu blesses them with fertility and successful kids.

Of course, I was super fascinated, and a bit horrified, by the thought of kids getting struck by middle-aged men, so at around 5pm that evening I found my way to the location where the tengu were expected to gather. It wasn’t hard – all I had to do was follow the sound of high-pitched screams.


I arrived at the gate, and proceeded to watch one of the strangest events I have ever seen in my entire life.


Exactly as the internet warned, men dressed up in tengu attire started running up and down the street and attacking people of all ages – from toddler to teens to middle aged women – while onlookers simply pointed and laughed and recorded videos on their phones. I too, took lots and lots of videos, which I plan to keep forever in case I’m ever in need of a laugh. (Sadly, I’m not able to upload the videos to the post, but shoot me an email and I’ll send you some!)

The festival was mainly intended for the kids, since they’re supposed to receive the bulk of the blessings, but the most memorable part of the festival was watching the parents, who were either taking pictures of their sobbing children or pushing them, literally pushing them, into the tengu’s path!


Though some children were running from the masked men in terror, other, braver, children walked right up to the tengu, asking – begging even – to be hit on the head. And the tengu were happy to oblige.


I ended up getting hit by a tengu too! It didn’t hurt at all, like I thought it would. But I’m pretty sure that he was going easy on me… I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of the other tengu targets woke up the next morning with bruises on their heads.


The festival was short, but it’s become one of my favorite memories in Japan! Not only do I have a new story to tell, but I also have a long line of successful children to look forward to, thanks to a masked stranger and his magical bamboo wand.