Tradition

Salmon sushi is Norwegian

Look at the menu of any sushi shop in Japan and you will almost certainly see salmon: fatty, tender and bright orange. But salmon is actually a relatively new addition to the sushi menu.

Behind salmon’s rise to popularity is the Norwegian marketing campaign: Project Japan. In the 1970s, Norway began commercial salmon farming but, with decreasing seafood consumption at home, salmon was soon filling industrial freezers. Japan, meanwhile, had been overfishing its waters, and with Japanese fishermen told to remain within their exclusive economic zones by the United Nations, Japan began opening up its once nearly self-sufficient seafood industry to foreign suppliers.

New Year's traditions

In Denmark, they save all of their unused dishes and plates until the 31st of December when they affectionately shatter them against the doors of all their friends and family to banish bad spirits.

In the Philippines, it’s all about the cash. They believe that everything should be round so as to represent coins and bring wealth. Round food, round clothes, as long as it’s round.

In Bolivia, coins are baked into sweets and whoever finds the coins has good luck for the next year.

In Japan, they ring all of their bells 108 times in alignment with the Buddhist belief that this brings cleanness. It’s also considered good to be smiling going into the New Year as it supposedly brings good luck.

Women call the cows home

For centuries, women in Sweden have been calling their cows home with a sound called kulning. Not quite singing, not quite yelling, kulning is a skill that has almost disappeared. But from medieval times until the mid-20th century, the sound could be heard every summer, ringing across the mountains. Reaching up to 125 decibels, kulning can be heard over 5 km (1 mi) away. Since cattle can wander a long ways, they needed to be able to hear the herdswomen calling them.

It was traditionally women who went up the mountains with the herd in the summer. They each lived in a small settlement, tending the animals. They milked the cows, made cheese and spent hours doing all the rest, like cooking, knitting, mending, making brooms, etc. It was hard work, but the women also had a lot of freedom without men around. They could do whatever they wanted up there.

Perpetual stew

Do you like to eat leftovers? At Wattana Panich bistro in Bangkok, you can have a bowl of soup that's been in the pot for almost 50 years. Known as neua tune, it follows the "perpetual stew" method of preparation: the leftovers at the end of each day are kept overnight to become the base for the next day's soup. 

Cultures all across the world have versions of perpetual stew. In France, it's called pot-au-feu, or "pot in the fire", for the way it was traditionally cooked—in a pot that hung over the hearth fire all day. Other cultures' versions of perpetual stew include Chinese master stock, Mongolian Firepot, and Olla Podrida (literally, "rotten pot") in Spain. In the U.S., we have "hunter's stew", and the wonderfully named "Skilligalee" of pioneer times.

Must traditions be traditional?

I’m from Canada, where Christmas is a big deal. The minute Halloween is finished, the Santa decorations go up in stores, Christmas songs start playing on the radio, and the fuss of holiday shopping starts in earnest. For me, one of the most nostalgic parts of Christmas is the food. I love a plate of roast turkey, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce with some pumpkin pie, all with a frosty glass of eggnog to drink.

Christmas in a foodies' paradise

Japan is a culinary delight. Tokyo is the city with the most Michelin stars in the world in 2019, and Kyoto and Osaka come third and fourth respectively. It's a country where ramen shops can command hours-long waits, and where entire floors of department stores are devoted to specialty food. If you take a domestic trip, you are expected to return to your office with omiyage—souvenir treats specific to a region. So one might expect Christmas time to be a season of decadent food. But actually, Christmas is when you get a bucket of KFC. 

Orders start to be taken as early as November, and if you are hoping to pop around the corner to pick up a family pack, you will be out of luck. The fried chicken, cakes and everything else at the fast-food chain sell out far in advance of December 25th. 

Saving "woman hand" with art

The 11th-century Japanese writer Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book was written using kana, a Japanese script mainly used by women for nearly a millennium to write literature, arrange secret assignations and express themselves freely within the confines of court life. Women in medieval Japan were discouraged from studying kanji, so they began using kana instead, which transcribe words phonetically. 

A standardisation programme at the beginning of the 20th century saw 90% of the 550 characters used in kana die out. But these forgotten characters are now being kept alive by the artist and master of Japanese calligraphy Kaoru Akagawa, who became fascinated with them after deciphering letters from her grandmother.

The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage

An ancient pilgrimage trail winds through the mountains of Japan’s Kii Peninsula, a densely forested region south of Osaka and Kyoto. It is the Kumano Kodo, a sacred passage of immense natural beauty that has been in use since the 10th century. There are early recorded visits to this region by Emperor Uda (907) and Emperor Kazan (986 and 987) but the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage became more broadly popular in the 11th century. 

The pilgrimage centers around the Three Grand Shrines: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha, and Kumano Hayatama Taisha. With steep inclines, long stretches of trail without a place to rest, and venomous snakes, it is not a hike for the faint-hearted. Early pilgrims did the arduous trek in crude wooden or straw sandals and kimonos. Many perished on the journey and along the trail are countless Jizo statues dedicated to those who died on the pilgrimage. 

Wabi-sabi: Beauty in imperfection

A key part of the Japanese Aesthetic—the ancient ideals that still govern the norms on taste and beauty in Japan—wabi-sabi is not only untranslatable, but also considered undefinable in Japanese culture. It encapsulates a more relaxed acceptance of transience, nature and melancholy, favouring the imperfect and incomplete in everything, from architecture to pottery to flower arranging.