When fresh crabs came knocking at my door

I’ve lived in Japan for a little over 5 months now. As I’ve slowly and shakily grown acclimated to life in this strange and unfamiliar country – and somehow managed to survive one curve ball after another – I thought that I’d finally arrived at a point where nothing else in this country could surprise me.

Turns out, as is so often the case, I was silly to assume that.

This past Sunday, as I was just finishing up preparing dinner, I heard a knock on my door – a delivery from the post office. My mom had told me a week prior that she’d sent me a box of Christmas presents, so I assumed her box had arrived. I signed the receipt and the delivery man handed me a large Styrofoam box – I thought it strange that my mom chose to send the gifts in Styrofoam, but I didn’t think much of it. I carried the box into my apartment, excited to take a peak at the presents inside.

But instead of finding an assortment of gifts wrapped in Christmas-themed paper, when I opened the box I came face to face with a pair of frozen, beady-eyed crabs!

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After overcoming my initial shock, I realized that the delivery was not a mistake – these were indeed my crabs.

Because, you see, about 3 weeks ago I’d ordered them myself.

So, let’s rewind to 3 weeks prior: the day I noticed a curious new flyer in the teachers’ room that had a large crab drawn on the front. (My desk in the communal teachers’ room at the elementary school I work at is located next to the cabinets where staff members often post various announcements and events for others to check at their convenience.)

IMG_7774The sign reads: “It’s crab season! 1 is 800 yen. The better the quality the higher price. For those who want to order, please tell Mrs. Yamada (name changed for confidentiality) your address and how many you want to order.”

To give a little background info as reference, Mrs. Yamada is from Tottori prefecture, which is located along the Sea of Japan. Tottori is famous for its adult male snow crab, known as Matsuba-gani, which is caught between November and early March. Apparently, the prefectural Matsuba Crab PR Committee even sets the 4th Saturday in November as ‘Matsuba Crab Day’ and holds an annual event at the docks of Tottori City and Iwami-cho.

Now, I’m no expert on crab – I think I’ve only eaten it once in my life. And even if crab is on the menu, I never order it, since it’s just so darn expensive. I mean, why would I pay $32 for soft shell crab with just enough meat to satisfy me for the night, when I could be spending that amount on groceries for an entire week?

But 800 yen (about $8) for a WHOLE crab? And from a prefecture that’s known to have some of the best fresh crab Japan has to offer? That sounded like a pretty good deal to me.

I messaged two other JET’s who live in my apartment building and asked if they’d be interested in splitting a few crabs with me. They were, as I expected, and we agreed to split two between the three of us. I gave Mrs. Yamada my address and my order and she gave me a smile, a nod, and that was it.

Now, fast forward to last Sunday, when I opened up the Styrofoam box to find the crabs instead of presents. Not only did I have absolutely no idea what to do about them, I was also worried that they’d defrost, come back to life, and start crawling around my apartment while I took refuge on top of my loft bed.

I frantically called one of the JET’s who’d agreed to order the crab with me. Luckily, he was home, and rushed up to my apartment with a large stew pot which we then filled up with water. While we waited for the water to come to a rolling boil, we looked up articles online about how to cook crab, since neither of us had ever attempted to boil one whole before.

Once the water was ready, we lifted the crabs out of the box with a serving spoon and dropped them into the pot. We cooked them for a little less than 20 minutes.

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Once the crabs had turned a deep red color, we assumed that they were ready to eat. We  put the cooked crabs in the fridge, since by then it was too late to eat them right away.

The following evening, we brought out the crabs, melted some butter with garlic and parsley and had a delicious meal!

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The meat was delicate and super flavorful – it was even a little sweet, which I hadn’t expected. And the texture was so soft and tender that it melted in my mouth with every bite. My friends and I picked the legs clean; there was enough meat in the two crabs to fill the three of us. At the end of the night, we all agreed that the experience was a success. Though it was a bit stressful overall, I think it was well worth the effort.

But next time I eat crab, I’m definitely planning on ordering it at a restaurant – I’d rather not have my crab surprise me at my doorstep again in the future.

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“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!)

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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.

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My first Thanksgiving in Japan

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday – not only because you get to spend an entire day with the people you love preparing an absurd amount of delicious and terrifyingly fattening dishes, but you get to eat it all afterwards too! And there’s nothing I like more than a plate piled high with buttery, high blood pressure-inducing, marshmallow-y sweet potatoes.

I’ve looked forward to Thanksgiving every year ever since I was a child, for all of the reasons listed above and more, but this year as the holiday approached, I realized that I was dreading it. Because this Thanksgiving would be the first spent away from my family… (and without a turkey.)

Though I tried to ignore it, the thought of Thanksgiving lingered in the back of my mind all throughout November. I still wanted to celebrate my favorite holiday, but I had no idea how I’d possibly manage a proper Thanksgiving celebration in my tiny apartment the size of a walk-in closet, with a kitchenette equipped with little more than a blender, a tea kettle, and a few pots and pans. A 40 pound turkey – which, by the way, are nearly non-existent in Japan – was out of the question.

But luckily, I found a few other fellow JET’s who were willing to give Thanksgiving in Japan a shot, despite the fact that our living arrangements were not conducive to preparing a feast. Though our celebration wouldn’t be as traditional, extravagant, or as gluttonous as we were used to, we decided it couldn’t hurt to make an attempt. We agreed to have our own version of a Thanksgiving luncheon, even without a turkey and canned cranberry sauce.

Since the luncheon was going to be held in my apartment, on Thanksgiving morning I stopped by Daiso and purchased a few fall-themed items, including fake red-orange maple leaves, a plastic wreath, and purple grapes made of wax, to decorate my little coffee table and make the space under my loft bed a bit more festive. With a bit of arranging and the help of a floral-scented candle (also from Daiso), I managed to ready the “dining area” for our Thanksgiving feast.

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Each of us planned to contribute something to the luncheon, kind of like a potluck. So in honor of my adoration of sweet potatoes, I made mashed Japanese sweet potatoes, cooked with ginger and coconut milk. My friend prepared a salad with spinach, walnuts, apples, and fresh persimmons (which are in season in Japan right now). Another brought cheese from the local high-end grocery store, along with a baguette and fancy jam, and another brought bottles of red wine. And in place of a turkey, I roasted a few chicken breasts with a sprig of thyme – which I’d say is close enough, right?

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Though our luncheon looked nothing like the Thanksgiving feasts we’ve grown accustomed to in the States, we had more than enough food to fill the four of us – I’d say that makes for a successful celebration. But above all, on top of the satisfying meal and impressive cheese spread, we got to celebrate it together – which, in the end, is the most important and worthwhile part of Thanksgiving after all.

Of course, I missed my family immensely all throughout the day, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to celebrate it with them next year, but I’m grateful to have been able to enjoy my first Thanksgiving in Japan with lots of good food and with people who have helped make my experience in Japan thus far a positive one.

Where to find nachos in Minoh

The farewell dinner at my final JET orientation in Los Angeles was Mexican food – tacos, chips and salsa, and churros for dessert. Enjoy it now, the coordinator said to us, since you’ll probably be without Mexican cuisine for a while. And she was right; good Mexican food – or any Mexican food at that – is nearly impossible to come by in Japan.

But after feasting on fajitas at the Mexican fiesta in Umeda last month, my fellow JET’s and I made it a goal to find decent Mexican food in the area.

And that we did – with La Costa.

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About a 15 minute walk from my apartment and 3 minutes from the main train station, La Costa is the only restaurant in Minoh serving up authentic Mexican cuisine. Some of the popular menu items include soft tacos with handmade corn tortillas, chicken fajitas with stir-fried bell peppers straight off a grill, and piping hot nachos topped with plenty of jalapenos. I never thought I’d get so excited by the sight of melted cheese.

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The place is run by the owner and one waiter. The owner also happens to be the chef – he cooks every dish himself on order, so the food is always freshly prepared (and with impressive presentation).

And not only is La Costa’s food high in quality, taste, and authenticity, its interior is too. From the tables to the chairs to the posters on the wall, the decorations throughout this tiny establishment make a commendable effort to create an authentic dining experience.

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(We asked if they really do sell tacos for 99 cents on Tuesday – they said no.)

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Honestly, I’d go back to La Costa for the interior alone! (The food is an added plus.)

The prices are a bit expensive for the portion size, but considering that this is the only Mexican restaurant for miles and miles, I don’t mind splurging a bit. And I’m relieved to know that ready-to-use bottles of Cholula hot sauce are only a 15 minute stroll away.

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For directions to La Costa, click here.

To see more photos of La Costa’s food, (since that’s the best part about restaurant reviews right?) here’s the link to their Tabelog site.

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The freshest ice cream you can find in Osaka

I am a big fan of ice cream.

I mean, who isn’t, right? And that’s why there are tons of articles on where to find the best ice cream in Osaka – from the creamiest, the healthiest (whatever that means), even the tallest – because everyone in the area wants to know where to find the best scoop or swirl of frozen sweetened cream the region has to offer.

As I scanned lists of the most frequented ice cream shops, I noticed that every single one included a place called ‘Shiroichi.’ So of course, I had to see for myself why this one shop in particular always happened to be featured without fail.

This past weekend, I found an opportunity to take the 45 minute commute out to Shiroichi in Shinsaibashi, a neighborhood in Osaka popular with locals and foreigners alike. Arriving in Shinsaibashi, my friend and I walked along a main street lined with high-end brand name stores, and then meandered through several alleys of pubs and European-themed cafes before arriving at Shiroichi’s front entrance.

I was surprised at how tiny the shop itself is; there’s barely enough room for more than a few people to stand inside. I was glad to have arrived late, since anymore than 5 people waiting to order at a time would’ve led to a line overflowing outside.

Like the size of the shop, the menu is also small. There’s only one type of ice cream – 生アイス, or ‘fresh ice cream’ in English. I don’t even think it has a flavor. You can order a simple serving in cup or a cone for 420 Yen. Though the ice cream is good enough on its own without the help of toppings, there are also several options on the menu that include added ingredients, like coffee, milk, and soybean powder. My friend ordered 珈琲(加糖), or sweetened coffee in English – which is a serving of ice cream with iced cold brew poured over the top.

I had trouble deciding on what to pick for a while, but I ended up opting for the 黒蜜抹茶 (kuromitsu matcha), which came with Matcha powder, a scoop of sweet red bean paste, mochi rice balls, pumpkin seeds, and a drizzle of brown sugar syrup (kuromitsu) over the top. It totaled out to be 680 Yen.

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After my first bite, I could tell why Shiroichi receives such impressive ratings and reviews. According to its website, the store uses only wholesome, all-natural organic ingredients for both its ice cream and its added toppings. And I don’t doubt it – I could really taste the difference in flavor, texture, and quality. Rather than using cream and additives, the shop instead uses nonhomogenized milk with a high milkfat content, which gives the ice cream a much lighter and delicate texture. It wasn’t excessively creamy, and wasn’t too sweet either. All of the components were perfectly balanced, which made for a refreshing, and memorable, treat. 680 Yen is a lot for a serving of ice cream, but I’d say it was well worth the price.

There’s also a Shiroichi in Shibuya, Tokyo, which is a bit farther from me. (By about 7 hours.) But for those who happen to find themselves in Tokyo, I highly recommend stopping by the Shibuya location for a life-changing swirl of the freshest ice cream you’ll ever taste. Though, be warned – you may never be able to go back to generic, store-bought ice cream again.

 

 

Fajitas in Umeda

If you’d told me a month ago that I’d be eating tacos and watching a Mariachi Band in Japan, I wouldn’t have believed you. Yet, that’s exactly how I started out my weekend – at Fiesta Mexicana in the middle of Umeda, Osaka.

Fiesta Mexicana is an annual festival, usually held mid-September, where everyone is welcome to appreciate and enjoy authentic Mexican food, art, and entertainment. It started several years ago and has since become a permanent event, ‘envisioned as an opportunity for citizen-level exchange to deepen friendship between Japan and Mexico.

I arrived at the base of Umeda Sky Building where the festival was taking place around 7:30pm. The festival area was lively and inviting, full of people and energy and the sound of mariachi music playing cheerily in the background.

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I’ve never seen Mariachi performers before, so I have nothing to compare the show too, but I – and my fellow visiters in the crowd – really enjoyed it. While the Mariachi band and the traditional folk dancers made the trip out to the festival worthwhile, my favorite part of the night by far was the food.

While my friends stood in line for burritos, I wandered from booth to booth to see what other meals and appetizers were being served. Most venders were selling tacos and cheese quesadillas, but there were also booths selling pozole, elotes, tamales, tostadas and other popular Mexican dishes.

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Though I had quite a bit of trouble deciding which booth to choose, I eventually decided to order from a stand selling a dinner set for 1000 Yen, which came with chipotle-seasoned chicken thigh straight off a flaming grill, a side of fajitas, pinto beans, and two flour tortillas. And yes, it was just as delicious as it sounds.

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After ordering, my friends and I gathered at a table by the stage, watched a performer sing a ballad in Japanese, sipped on tequila cocktails, and ate our Mexican food with a pair of wooden chopsticks. Multiple times throughout the night, I couldn’t help thinking to myself how peculiar the whole experience was. Though I would never have imagined myself in a situation as strange as that, it’s definitely been one of my favorites so far. If I happen to be in Osaka next September, Fiesta Mexicana is an event I plan on returning to without a doubt – for the ambience, the exceptional performances, and the perfectly grilled chicken.

Where to Find a Whole Cheesecake for 685 Yen

You’ve probably heard a little bit about “Japanese cheesecake.” It’s a huge hit right now – or at least it was a few months ago when I saw an INSIDER YouTube video featuring a dessert stand in Japan selling a special kind of fresh cheesecake, known for its signature jiggle. I’d never seen a cheesecake like that before – I knew I had to try it. So I added the featured dessert stand to my ever-increasing While in Osaka bucket list. And I finally got the chance to cross the destination off the list!

The stand is called Rikuro Ojisan no mise Namba (りくろーおじさんの店 なんば本店), which roughly translates to Mr. Rikuro`s shop in Namba. Rikuro Ojisan is actually a chain, but the INSIDER video happened to feature the Namba location, so of course I had to go to that one. Luckily for me, the commute to Namba from Minoh is pretty straightforward – a train to Umeda, a subway ride to Namba station. And the shop itself is only about a five minute walk from the station`s west exit.

After navigating our way through the district’s hectic streets, lined with shops and restaurants, we arrived. The renowned sweets stand wasn’t difficult to spot, what with the classic red flags stamped with the outline of Rikuro-san’s smiling face marking the front entrance.

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Fortunately, the line out front wasn’t as long as I’d thought it would be. Service was fast, cheesecakes were piling up fresh from the ovens – my friends and I only had to wait our turn for a few minutes at most. There were a wide array of dessert and pastry options besides cheesecake to choose from too, as well as an extensive drink menu, but we decided to stick with just the cheesecake that had lured us all the way there in the first place.

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Rikuro’s 人気No.1 (Most Popular)

Between me and my four friends, we decided to split one cheesecake – which turned out to be way more than enough. (We barely even finished half.) In fact, I bet one could easily feed up to ten people. They’re that big, like the size of my head kind of big. And​ the best part is that one cheesecake – one WHOLE cheesecake – is only 685¥! (About $6.26.) Yeah, I’m serious. No, I don’t get it either.

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The five of us gathered around a tiny table at the stand’s limited seating area. We were given a butter knife, tiny plastic spoons, and plates for sharing. We took the cheesecake out from its box and stared at it and poked it and shook it to see if it actually jiggled. (It did.) After posting obligatory Snapchat videos and taking several close-up shots for Instagram, we were finally ready to slice up the cake and see for ourselves whether its taste was as appetizing as its appearance…

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Sadly, it wasn’t.

To my – and my friends’ -​disappointment, the first bite of Rikuro-san’s cheesecake left much to be desired.

First, the flavor itself was overwhelmingly egg-y. It honestly tasted like scrambled eggs with a dash of sugar mixed in. It also left a strange aftertaste on the back of my tongue that I can’t quite put into words. The texture was alright, but it was a little grainy at first – not smooth, like I’d typically expect cheesecake to be. The addition of raisins also didn’t seem to work all that well either – though, I’m not that big a fan of raisins in general, so I’m probably biased.

On the plus side, the cake wasn’t ​overwhelmingly rich or heavy, so I didn’t feel sick after eating a slice, as is usually the case with a much smaller slice of cheesecakes I’ve had in the States.

Overall, I think the cheesecake’s reasonably low price makes the cake a worthwhile try, but I’m not sure I approve of Rikuro’s twist on this classic dessert…

Maybe I`ll try out the pudding next time instead.

Bean Sprouts for “Self-healing”

I’ve spent these last few weeks settling into my new life in Minoh, which I’ve just recently begun to call home. Beyond Minoh, I’ve taken the train to Osaka city several times, but I’d never gone farther than Namba. Yesterday though, I finally ventured beyond Osaka Prefecture into Hyogo for a day trip at the Kobe port terminal – a go-to destination for tourists, known for its sky tower and a beautiful view of the water (and an unnecessary number of shopping malls).

My friend/semi-tour guide and I wandered through the strip of shops and Italian restaurants and ice cream stands, stood at the edge of the pier and watched the sea. Around noon, probably taken by the smell of fresh pizza dough wafting from the artisan cafe behind us, we decided to search for a place to stop for lunch.

The night before, the two of us had indulged in omurice for dinner – which I highly recommend for all interested in a comforting, and equally gratifying, meal, but not for those interested in trimming their waist line. Our stomachs were still a little tired from a long night of breaking down yolk, ketchup, and rice, so we decided to search for food that would soothe our digestive systems rather than decimate them.

With a bit of Googling, we decided upon a vegan (yes, vegan) cafe called “Modernark,” which labeled itself the self-healing cafe. My friend and I liked the sound of that, so we left the air-conditioned strip, stepped into the humidity, and headed to Modernark, ready for a dose of intestinal cleansing.

Modernark is about 20 minutes away from Kobe Port on foot. Though the weather made for a sweaty commute, the walk itself is simple and straightforward, and makes for a fascinating stroll if you decide to take the detour through NankinMachi, or Kobe’s Chinatown, along the way (which we did).

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Modernark is known for their array of tea options, but they also have a well-rounded, and reasonably-priced, lunch menu. Though, their lunch menu is pretty limited. There were only three options for lunch: a vegan plate with an assortment of seasoned vegetables and brown rice, vegan curry with brown rice, and a burrito (which was also, yes, vegan) with a side of salad.

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“THE SELFHEALING CAFE”

I chose the vegetable plate, because I thought it looked the most interesting of the three choices. The plate came with marinated carrot and cucumber strands, soft tofu with sesame burdock root, fried tofu with bean sprouts and slivered almonds, mashed potato, and salad.

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The vegetable plate at Modernark: 1140 Yen.

After tasting the spread, I’d say it tasted just as… unusual… as its appearance. Though the presentation of the dish reminded me of something I’d receive in a vegan restaurant back in the states, all of the vegetables were coated in seasonings that were strongly Japanese in flavor – sweet, subtle, with an aftertaste of sesame oil.

The flavors weren’t all that new to me. But the textures caught me off guard. I’d say the strangest was the fried tofu and bean sprouts – the sprouts were light and airy, and dripping in a sauce with a taste that I can’t quite explain. The tofu was an experience in itself; chewing on it felt kind of like chewing on white bread that’d been soaking in mayonnaise for a few days. Not that I’ve ever eaten white bread with mayonnaise before…

Though the flavor profile wasn’t anything to rave about, and the textures were a tad questionable, I can say with confidence that I did feel very refreshed and rejuvenated after my meal. The produce was fresh, the spread was well-balanced, and I definitely wasn’t suffering from the same regret I’d experienced the night before after stuffing myself with omurice.

I didn’t have the chance to sample anything else on their menu, but Modernark also had a long list of herbal teas, flavored lattes, and wines. If I’m ever in Kobe again, I’ll be sure to stop by Modernark to sample a few of their drinks – and their vegan desserts too, which the cafe also had quite a few options for. Though, I’m a little hesitant to say their cakes and assorted pastries are conducive to “self-healing.” But hey, who knows… I mean, it is vegan right?

Kakigori at Minoh Matsuri

Festivals are super common in Japan, especially during the summer. There’s food, games, and usually a stage area with a constant line of performances. Every July, Minoh has its own festival, apparently to celebrate it’s mascot’s (Yuzuru) birthday. I was lucky enough to have arrived in Minoh in time to attend the festival (and to see Yuzuru open his presents).

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The streets were lined with these lanterns, which say “Minoh Festival.”
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Yuzuru is Minoh’s official mascot! He’s made of Yuzu, a type of citrus fruit that’s produced locally in Minoh. And he’s really cute.

I went to several festivals the last time I came to Japan in 2015 – they’re all pretty similar. Lots of people and lots of fried food. You can play games too, maybe do a little bit of souvenir shopping, but I’d say the highlight of festivals has to be the food. There’s tons of it. AND festivals are the only and place where it’s acceptable to eat while walking, which I made sure to take full advantage of.

You’ll usually see the same type of foods at festivals, like yakitori, karaage, and yakisoba, to name a few. Minoh Matsuri had about ten different stands selling yakitori alone. There were stands featuring foods that I’d never seen before too, like roasted marshmallows, hot cakes, and even Indian curry with naan!

My favorite treat to get at festivals though, is kakigori, which is finely shaved ice with a choice of syrup. (You’ll know a stall is serving it if you see this signature flag.) It’s just ice, so it’s super refreshing, especially in the summer heat – a welcome dose of cool amidst clouds of hot, mildly suffocating yakitori smoke and an endless swarm of sweaty festival-goers 

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There were tons of kakigori stands at Minoh Matsuri – some with different flavors, some with higher prices and larger cups, some with ice cream even – which made picking a stand difficult. I walked through the entire festival ground, attempting to select the best one. I ended up very satisfied with my stand of choice though, because it offered toppings! ^_^

Mine came with mangoes and strawberries, little mochi balls, and condensed milk, all of which I’d never had on kakigori before. By far, the best kakigori I’ve had – and for 350 Yen. I’ll never be able to go back to mochi-and-condensed-milk-less kakigori again – I’ll definitely be searching for that stand at every festival I go to in the future.

*If you’re not in an area with readily available kakigori stands, here’s a recipe I found that you should try! (I know I will.)