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Somen: Japanese summer lunch

Onimaru restaurant

Have you ever been to Japan during summer time? If so, you know that feeling of heat and humidity that sticks to your skin. Then, all you want is to settle down in a cool place and enjoy a light, cold meal. Somen noodles is the perfect meal during those hot days.

The perfect meal to try during summer in Japan

In the West, summer rhythms with salads. In Japan, summer meals are characterized by cold noodles. Udon and soba, enjoyed at room temperature and dipped in a cold broth, are the most famous ones, and not to be missed during sunny days in Japan.

Somen

But do you know somen? These noodles, very thin and white, are made from wheat flour, water and salt. In summer, the noodles are cooked in boiling water for 1 minute, then run under cold water to cool them. You eat them by dipping them in tsuyu (a broth) made with soy sauce and dashi (bonito broth)

Osaka somen
Cold somen noodles

What are the Nagashi Somen?

A fun way to eat somen in the summer is nagashi somen. But what is it?

Bamboo cut in half lengthwise are installed in the restaurant. The noodles are sent into these bamboo and flow down to you, like on a slide. You have to catch them with your chopsticks. Be careful not to miss your meal, you have to be quick to catch the noodles. The last noodles are usually in a pink color. This marks the end of the meal.

Nagashi somen can be tasted for example in the city of Kifune, north of Kyoto.

Onimaru, a small restaurant specializing in somen in the heart of Osaka

At Peko Peko, our favorite place to enjoy somen is undoubtedly the Onimaru Restaurant, located in the heart of Osaka, not far from Nakanoshima Island. Opened in early 2021, the restaurant is run by a couple from Nara Prefecture.

Onimaru Osaka
Mister Akutagawa in the kitchen

In Sakurai City, in Nara Prefecture, is Oomiwa Shrine, one of the oldest shrines in Japan, with a history dating back over 1,200 years ago. As the population suffered from hunger, the gods answered their prayer by revealing the preparation of the somen. The wheat was spread over the land, harvested, grounded and the flour kneaded with thermal water to form the noodles.

Since then, somen have often been given to the imperial family as a gift as a traditional food representing Japan.

Onimaru Osaka
Ethnic pho soup inspired somen

Every week, Mr. Akutagawa thinks about a new way to prepare these delicious noodles. Of course, the traditional way, especially in summer, is to eat them cold. But Mr. Akutagawa likes to get creative and prepares ethnic pho soup inspired somen, or Italian pasta inspired somen with tomatoes and basil.

The restaurant also specializes in rice and offers recipes that showcase this very important ingredient of Japanese food culture. You can taste different onigiri (rice ball) or donburi, the most popular of which is undoubtedly roast beef donburi (rice covered with roast beef).

Onimaru Osaka

If you’re in Osaka, don’t hesitate to stop by Onimaru and in the meantime, prepare your own somen (perhaps inspired by Mr. Akutagawa’s recipes) with the noodles that you will receive in your July 2021 Peko Peko Box. Also included in the box, a beautiful glass somen bowl.

Somen glass bowl
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The secrets of Asakusa lantern

Yamazaki-ya Genshichi Chōchin Store

When visiting Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, one cannot miss the Kaminarimon Gate and its huge red paper lantern. But who is behind the creation of this beautiful craft? We set off to meet Norio Yamada, who hand-draws on lanterns.

Asakusa lanterns workshop: Yamazaki-ya Genshichi Chōchin

In Asakusa, it takes two craftsmen to make a lantern. The first one makes the structure of the lantern. The second one paints on it. The Yamazaki-ya Genshichi Chōchin workshop makes Edo hand drawing lamps. It has been in operation for nearly 300 years. This particular skill of writing on lanterns has been passed down there for 8 generations. Today, it is Mr. Norio Yamada who perpetuates the tradition.

The workshop’s main customers are restaurants, bars and boutiques, who have their establishment’s name inscribed on lanterns to hang on their storefronts. But lanterns are also in Japanese culture an object attracting good fortune and luck. This is why Mr. Yamada also receives orders for gifts for children’s birthdays, weddings or festivals.

Yamazaki-ya Genshichi Chōchin Store
Yamazaki-ya Genshichi Chōchin Store

Writing on the lantern is a delicate process. The style used is called Edo Moji or the Edo Signs, referring to the historical period in which it was created. Since the lanterns are not smooth, the signs cannot be drawn in one stroke. You must first trace the outline of each letter before filling them.

It takes 40 minutes to write a name on a very small lantern and 5 to 6 hours for a larger lantern that requires an inscription on two sides or the design of a coat of arms.

When we ask Mr. Yamada why he dedicated his life to lantern painting, he explained that it came naturally to him, having bathed in this environment since his childhood.

However, this is not the case for all members of the family, since his own father decided not to indulge in it. So, after starting to learn lantern writing for a few months, he decided to switch to a more modern profession.

Mr. Yamada therefore took over after his grandfather. When we ask him who will carry on this know-how after him, he tells us that he does not know yet. Few people want to learn this tough job. However, he hopes that his son, now 6, will develop an interest in this art.

Asakusa Lantern
Kaminarimon Lantern

The secret behind the Kaminarimon Asakusa lantern

Kaminarimon and its red lantern are the symbol of the Asakusa district. When visiting Tokyo, one cannot fail to take the iconic souvenir photo. On the front of the lantern are written the characters Kaminarimon 雷 門 and on the back Furaijinmon 風雷 神 門. These symbols refer to the two statues framing the door which represent the god of wind and the god of thunder. Also inscribed on the lantern is the date it was replaced, currently April 2020. A new lantern is usually hanged once every ten years.

But have you ever noticed the little plaque on the back of the lantern? In 1960, the head of the Matsushita Electronics company fell ill and decided to go to Sensoji Temple to pray for his health back. Once he felt better, he decided to donate this lantern. Today you know Matsushita Electronics by its new name, Panasonic. But the name inscribed on the plaque remains the original one to commemorate the roots of the company.

Yamazaki-ya Genshichi Chōchin Store
Yamazaki-ya Genshichi Chōchin Store

Your own lantern with your name: is it possible?

What could be better than a lantern to decorate your home and give a room a Japanese atmosphere? And what could be better if this lantern is personalized with your first name? If you are interested in your own lantern with your name handwritten by Mr. Yamada, let us know in the comments below this article.

Yamazaki-ya Genshichi Chōchin Store

Website: here
Address: 2 Chome-9-9 Kaminarimon, Taito City, Tokyo 111-0034

Get to know more about Asakusa with our Asakusa box. You can purchase it now.

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Nakamise dori: Miniature Edo-style toys

Asakusa, miniature Edo style toys shop

On Nakamise dori, the shopping street going from the Kaminarimon gate to the Senso-ji temple in Asakusa, is a small store that you might not notice. A small shop for small toys. Indeed, the shop sells traditional miniature Edo-style toys. There, we met with Mister Yoshitaka Kimura, the owner. He introduced us to this delicate and little-known craft.

Miniature Edo-style toys shop on Nakamise dori
Mister Yoshitaka Kimura in his miniature Edo-style toys shop on Nakamise dori

The Edo period and sumptuary laws

During the Edo period, artisans developed the skills to make smaller and smaller items. The reason? The sumptuary laws issued during this time.

With the establishment of the Edo period (1615-1868), the shogunate was determined to strengthen its control and maintain peace by creating a stable society. To do so, the class system was tightened with strong social and economic rules.

At the top of society, the samurai, followed by farmers, artisans and, at the bottom of the pyramid, merchants. Nobility, shinto priests and Buddhist monks were exempt from this class system.

To maintain this hierarchy, the shogunate issued sumptuary laws. They aimed to control outward signs of wealth, by regulating how to dress or how to decorate one’s house. For example, merchants couldn’t wear clothes with gold and silver trimming. While farmers could only wear hemp and cotton clothing. Even the upper classes were constrained by certain rules. Thus, women couldn’t bring along more than one maid.

In opposition to those laws, the Edo period was full of creativity and innovation. The merchants, stucked at the bottom of the hierarchy but getting very prosperous at that time, did not fail to find ingenious ways to expose their new wealth.

For example, one can still find today houses which, from the street, appear to have only one storey, when in fact have two, but only visible once inside. These creative architectures made it possible to circumvent the laws on housing constructions. This is also why artisans developed the skills to make miniature toys. Less ostentatious than large and luxurious items, the smaller the toy, the finer the details, and the higher the price.

Miniature Edo-style toys

Sukeroku shop on Nakamisa dori, Asakusa

Founded in 1866, Sukeroku, on Nakamise dori, is the last remaining shop selling Japanese miniature Edo-style toys. Now run by 84 years old Yoshitaka Kimura, his family has passed-on this tradition, introducing the skills of craftsmen for 5 generations.

Nowadays, there are fewer and fewer craftsmen capable of such precision. And they are scattered throughout Japan. Mr. Kimura made it his mission to promote this unique know-how by continuing to showcase their work in his shop.

Our time has seen a return to fashion for ostentatious objects, on the principle “the bigger it is, the more expensive”. But for Mr. Kimura, anyone can create a big item. While only a few specialists can have the patience, the delicacy and the skills to make such precise miniatures.

If you find yourself in the Nakamise dori shopping street, do not hesitate to go visit Mr. Kimura and admire the delicate work of the artisans.

Edo style toy

Nakamise dori – Sukeroku

Website: www.asakusa-nakamise.jp/store/pop.php?sid=95
Address: 2 Chome-3-1 Asakusa, Taito City, Tokyo 111-0032

Learn more about Asakusa by getting our Asakusa box

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Japanese cooking class with Mayuko’s Little Kitchen

Stuck at home? Always wanted to learn how to cook Japanese cuisine? Well, Mayuko, a young Japanese chef from Tokyo, might have the answer for you. She offers fun online Japanese cooking class so you can feel like you too are in Tokyo! We have asked her a few questions.

Could you introduce yourself?

My name is Mayuko. I grew up in Choshi city, which has one of the biggest harvests of fresh fish in Japan. I has been strongly influenced by my mother, who was a professional cooking teacher.

Why did you start your own Japanese cooking class?

I used to work in a cosmetics company called LUSH. I was a sub manager at that time and I was hoping to become a manager. When I was working at a retail shop, a Finnish couple came in to buy some products and we chatted for a while. It was in 2011.

The next year, the same couple came to our shop again. And the year after that too! They said they came to Japan again since they fell in love with Japan. That made me very happy.

As they were staying in Japan for one month, I guided them all around Tokyo, introducing to them good restaurants and inviting them to my home for dinner. We met almost every other day. I really enjoyed telling them about Japanese culture through food.

After they left, the idea suddenly popped into my mind: Why not offer my own Japanese cooking classes? I love talking and teaching about Japanese culture through food. Besides, my Mom used to be a cooking teacher, and I love meeting new people.

So, I decided to offer my own Japanese cooking classes. My mission would be to introduce Japanese culture though authentic food to foreign visitors. To prepare, I went to cooking courses, and, in January 2015, I opened Mayuko’s Little Kitchen. Since then I have been teaching visitors to Japan from all over the world (more than 2,500 people from 35 different countries) about Japanese culture through the preparation of authentic Japanese home cuisine.

Japanese cooking class: gyozas
Delicious home-made gyozas

What kind of experience do you offer?

I started offering in-person class in my home. Then from last May I started online classes so that even if my guests cannot come to Japan, Japan can come to them even during the pandemic. Besides, I teach “cooking survival series in Japan”. It is a four classes series of cooking class, especially made for expats using local ingredients. The online class is 1.5 to 2 hours. You can learn how to make gyoza wrapper and gyoza, sushi roll, miso soup etc.

Why do you think Japanese cuisine is so special?

Since Japan was closed until the Edo period, a unique food culture was cultivated in Japan. What I especially think is special is that the food is not considered just by its flavor but “five senses”: flavor, texture, smell, presentation and the sound of cooking. Also, I love and never miss to say the words “itadakimasu (the phrase before eating)” and “gochisousama (the phrase after eating)” even when I eat solo. Those words meaning includes the appreciation for the things (nature, ingredients, chefs, carrier) which lead the food in front of us.

What is your favorite Japanese food?

Definitely raw fish! I love tuna, sardine, yellow tail…since I grew up in a city which has the biggest harvest of the fish.The city is called Choshi and it takes 2 hours from Tokyo by train to go there. I also have there a cooking class in the traditional wooden house of my grandparents’ once a month.

What is your Japanese food guilty pleasure?

It is tonkotsu ramen of Jyangara Ramen in Harajuku.The soup smell is strong, rich, powerful and high in calorie. I order the noodles as “konaotoshi (super hard)”. You will still have a full tummy even 5 hours after enjoying this dish.

Want to join Mayuko for a Japanese cooking class?

Even if your are not an experimented cook, we highly recommend joining one of Mayuko’s class. She is super fun and easy to talk to and you will for sure spend a nice time and learn a lot about Japanese culture! Her explanations are really simple and clear so you will be sure to eat a delicious meal at the end of the class. You will also for sure be able to cook it again all by yourself to impress your friends and family.

Join now Japanese cooking class on her website: Mayuko’s Little Kitchen

Her instagram to follow her culinary journey : here

You can also gift a class to one of your love ones! If you are looking for other Japan lovers gift ideas, check out our gifts ideas in our article: 4 best gift ideas for someone who loves Japan.