The Mysterious Origins of “Teriyaki Chicken”

Growing up in Seattle, WA, on the west coast of the United States, I was relatively familiar with Asian foods and cultures due to the large and deeply-rooted population of immigrants from all over Asia. My family used to meet up on special occasions at a Chinese restaurant called the Sea Garden in Seattle’s International District, and my grandfather even knew the owner. For a cheaper, quicker, and slightly dirtier option, my friends and I would often eat at one of the numerous “teriyaki chicken” restaurants that can be found all over the city. Teriyaki chicken describes butterflied chicken breasts usually served “donburi” style (over rice) with a sweet “teriyaki” sauce. To us, this was Japanese food, made by Japanese people, and it was delicious.

teriyaki chicken.jpg


When I would meet people from other parts of the United States, I was sometimes surprised that they either didn’t know what I was talking about when I spoke of teriyaki chicken, or that they would only eat it on rare occasions. Eventually, I came to realize that Seattle was a special place for teriyaki chicken. Indeed, in a Yelp search for “chicken teriyaki,” the medium-sized city of Seattle turns up 263 results, while a comparable search for Chicago turns up only 187, despite the fact that Chicago boasts over four times Seattle’s population. After thinking about it, this difference made sense to me considering the relatively large population of Japanese immigrants living in Seattle.


But is teriyaki chicken really a Japanese food? Over the many years I spent eating teriyaki in Seattle, I came to realize that the people cooking it for me were usually not Japanese, but in fact Korean or of another Asian ethnicity. Many of the teriyaki chicken places even have a side menu featuring kimchi, bibimba, and other Korean foods. I started to doubt my self-created narrative of Japanese influence leading to Seattle’s prolific teriyaki output.


Analyzing the word “teriyaki” itself, reveals that it must have some relation to Japan. The kanji character for “teri” loosely means shiny, while “yaki” means to grill or generally cook. These words combined do a fairly good job of describing what I eat in my hometown; too good to be a mere coincidence. Plus, even if the people making the food are usually Korean-Americans, why would the food have a Japanese name if it was not originally Japanese?


teriyaki sauce.jpg


Internet recipes, histories, and general blog posts on the topic are in agreement: the concept of teriyaki, if not teriyaki chicken, comes from Japan. Many allude to teriyaki chicken itself as a traditional food or even a staple and provide advice on how to make dishes similar to what can be found in America. Some take a more nuanced approach, conceding that versions of teriyaki found in America are not Japanese food, but that teriyaki is a traditional Japanese method of cooking that has been modified over the years involving marinating or glazing meat or fish in sauce before cooking it. Ingredients found in “traditional” or “authentic” teriyaki sauce recipes include soy sauce, mirin, (special Japanese cooking sake) sake, and sugar. Many recipes also include garlic and ginger, although some posters claim those ingredients to be non-traditional. A common theme among these recipes is their distinction between “real Japanese teriyak chicken” and “American teriyaki chicken” which they claim is sweetened artificially with products such as corn starch (it probably is).

While I am not in a position to completely debunk those who claim to be making “authentic” Japanese teriyaki chicken, my Japanese coworkers and I agree that it is likely not a traditional Japanese food, and is certainly not eaten by modern Japanese people. One coworker commented that the only place he had ever seen the word teriyaki used was at McDonalds, which serves a teriyaki chicken burger. There are no teriyaki chicken restaurants to be found on the streets of Tokyo, and I have yet to hear of anyone making the dish in their home. The concept of teriyaki may exist in Japan as a sauce used in preparing food, or even a marinade for “yakitori” chicken skewers, (although the word “teriyaki itself is seldom used in reference to this) but teriyaki chicken itself is for all intents and purposes an American food.


teriyaki mega mac.jpg


Teriyaki chicken is certainly a delicious dish, and I look forward to indulging in a plate or two of it when I return to my hometown of Seattle. However, you should be skeptical the next time someone claims to be making an authentic Japanese version of it. If you are planning to travel to Japan, know that the food here will be amazing, but please do not expect there to be teriyaki chicken, especially that of the “authentic Japanese” variety.


Okutama/Elie’s Last Post

As our year of study abroad is coming to a close, the ryugakusei bros decided to take one last overnight trip away from Tokyo together. We considered climbing Mt. Fuji but decided that it would be too crowded on the day we had available (David actually ended up climbing it and will be writing a blog post about it). Our next choice was the island of Izu, which has both beautiful beaches and cool, forested, hilly areas. After much debate, we decided on a third option, Okutama, another scenic, hilly area with a river to swim in. Okutama has the advantage of being closer than Izu and thus easier/cheaper to get to, and we also just wanted to try a place that most of us had never been to. My German friend Robin reserved an inexpensive bungalow, (or “bangaloo,” as he called it in a facebook message) we threw a bunch of drinks and bbq ingredients in a cooler, and “men’s retreat Okutama 2013” was on!

image from

image from

After two hours on trains, we were ready to go swimming when we arrived, so we rolled to a campsite about five minutes away from the train station that featured both cabins and a rocky beach (not as uncomfortable as it sounds) to set up tents on.  There was a pretty cool crowd at the beach bbqing, chilling, drinking beer, and jumping into the freezing cold river water. I was also impressed by some particularly creative campers who were making bbq-like firepits and even a kiddie pool in the river out of the beach rocks. We had a good time at this beach, and If I were to go to Okutama again it seems like it would be a fun and social place to stay. campin

Located a little further down the river, our bungalow was managed by an extremely kind and extremely elderly Japanese couple. In contrast to the campsite we spent our afternoon at, there were very few others staying in the area and it felt isolated. We spent the night barbecuing kalbi and yakisoba on one of the communal grills and playing a German drinking game that Robin calls “swimming.”bbq

The bungalow itself was actually just a tatami room with a short table and a couple of chairs in it. Figuring that futons or some other sort of sleeping arrangements would be provided, my group hadn’t brought any sleeping bags, and we ended up sleeping with our bags as pillows and towels for blankets. The night was pretty cold and I think I can say we all felt stupid about it.

Our morning consisted of swimming in the river while playing music through my buddy’s waterproof speakers and taking in the lush nature scene. It felt great to be away from the crowds of Tokyo relaxing in the mountains with my friends.

The last thing we did before returning to the city was bathe at Moegi-no-yu Onsen near Okutama station. In my opinion, if you travel in Japan without bathing publicly in the numerous hot springs, you aren’t doing it right. Even though it cost 750 yen, taking a relaxing soak in a rotemburo seemed like a fitting end to our ryugakusei experience.

For those who are staying in Tokyo, I definitely recommend Okutama due to its relative proximity, inexpensiveness, cool weather and  natural beauty. It is probably best to go in the summer to escape Tokyo’s oppressive heat especially because the river water is so cold and refreshing. I also have heard that there are nice hiking trails and a large lake in the area. Check it out if you have the time!

As for studying abroad in Japan, I would have to recommend that as well. It is not always the easiest thing to do, but if you are open to new experiences you are certain to find great ones and you will probably make lifelong friends from all over the world too. If you have the opportunity to do this, make sure to take it!

As I will be returning home to America to finish school, I will no longer be writing for the Ryugakusei Town Blog. I hope some of you have enjoyed my articles and maybe even gotten some useful ideas from them. Thanks for reading!

mens retreat okutama


Seating Arrangements

My older brother recently paid a visit to Tokyo and could not believe how comfortable my Japanese housemates were with sitting on the floor. When eating at our low table or just lounging around watching TV, my housemates choose to sit on the living room tatami despite the presence of a fairly comfortable couch. They and other Japanese friends of mine have been known to choose tatami over regular seating at izakayas and other restaurants as well.  As a foreigner in Japan, you must be ready to forgo the chair you are so accustomed to and plop yourself down on the floor. Here are a few different methods of sitting to fit whatever tatami situation you find yourself in:


Most Polite: “Seiza” (sitting on your knees)

Quoth Wikipedia: “To sit seiza-style, one first kneels on the floor, folding their legs underneath their thighs, while resting the buttocks on the heels. The ankles are turned outward as the tops of the feet are lowered so that, in a slight “V” shape, the tops of the feet are flat on the floor and big toes sometimes are overlapped, and the buttocks are finally lowered all the way down.”

Perhaps more simply explained as “sitting on your knees,” seiza (literally meaning “correct sitting”) is the seating style that will most impress your Japanese friends and acquaintances. Seiza is to be employed at all formal occasions and is mostly appreciated at informal occasions as well. However, if you are like me, you will find that your legs begin to burn from physical exertion after sitting in this position for about five minutes, and you will likely reveal this by making a not-so-subtle readjustment to your sitting situation. At this point some kind Japanese person will usually tell you that despite their Japanese origins, seiza is a pain for them as well (people say this about kanji and keigo too) and urge you to switch to a more comfortable position.


Casual: “Cross-legged” (mostly for men)

“Criss-cross applesauce,” as we called it in my kindergarten class, is the most popular sitting style among men for most occasions. This position provides the dual benefits of comfort and the ability to lean over and eat at a small table. It is certainly not as polite as seiza, and I have been around people who see it as impolite in general. However, these people seem to be in the minority, and sitting cross-legged is probably your best bet to comfortably enjoy a meal on tatami.


Casual: “Both Legs to One Side” (mostly for women)

Perhaps due to the difficulties of sitting cross-legged while wearing a skirt, Japanese women most commonly sit on tatami with both legs to one side. This has similar benefits to sitting cross-legged and is actually more comfortable in my opinion. I have seen some women sit cross-legged and some men sit with both legs to one side as well, so these gender classifications are not steadfast rules.


Nomikai (drinking party) Only: “freestyle”

When I go out drinking with my soccer club, we are almost always in rooms with tatami, and no one seems to care how anyone sits. I guess alcohol has a way of loosening up social rules. On top of that, at my local izakaya it is not uncommon to see a drunk Japanese college student laying on the floor. At this point I know that I can immediately stop worry about whether I am sitting properly.

My advice to those traveling to Japan is to always try to start sitting in the seiza position then copy what those around you are doing. I am so inflexible that I am unable to even sit cross-legged, so I generally start out sitting seiza anyways and try to stay in that position as long as possible. If I am among friends or at a nomikai, I might lean against a wall or sit with my legs under the table, both of which are technically taboo. At formal occasions, I will do my best to sit in seiza position for the whole meal.


“Horigotatsu” is my favorite style of Japanese seating because it provides me the tatami aesthetic with superior comfort. Upon first glance, horigotatsu looks like a regular tatami floor, but upon further inspection you will see that the area under the table has been carved out.  This allows customers to sit on tatami but still feel like they are sitting in a chair.

If you are planning to come here, please do not worry too much about sitting on tatami in Japan. People here know that sitting on the floor can be tough for foreigners and are accommodating in this aspect (although they may laugh at you). If this kind of thing really stresses you out, stretch or do yoga to get flexible before you come here.

Looking back we can see that this post has been a ton of fun for us all. Check back here next Wednesday for more analysis of mundane topics from your boy!

Japanese Advice

A typical denshijisho

A typical denshijisho

Now a third-year University student, I have been studying Japanese since I was in middle school with only a one-year break during my senior year of high school. While I do not pretend to be the perfect student, I feel that other Japanese language students could potentially learn from the numerous experiences I have attained over the years.. Here are three tips for all of you studying Japanese out there:

1. Buy a “Denshijisho” (electronic dictionary)

Despite having studied Japanese since middle school, I did not purchase an electronic Japanese-English dictionary until this year. Now, I could not imagine studying Japanese without it. Where before I would spend time searching through paper dictionaries or even looking up kanji in the thick Nelson dictionary I was required to purchase for my University, I can now just type in words to my denshijisho or draw kanji on its electronic pad. While I admire those who have mastered the use of the Nelson and other Japanese-English dictionaries, I much prefer the instant results I get from my denshijisho.

One downside of  denshijishos is their cost, and this is what kept me from buying one over the years. A new one runs from $200-$300, and they are constantly being updated with new dictionaries and features. I bought one from Sharp’s last generation for around $160 and it works just fine. After finally pulling the trigger on this expensive piece of equipment, I am only mad that I didn’t buy one earlier

Some of my friends have told me that they get the same or better capabilities as my denshijisho from cheap apps on their smartphones or ipads, and one even purchased a denshijisho game cartridge for his Nintendo DS. If you already possess a smartphone, ipad, or DS, these devices, you could save a lot of money by pursuing one of these options.

2. Make Kanji Flashcards/Use Anki

I used to study kanji in list form, with the characters, furigana, and English definitions arranged in rows. While I could quickly memorize a fair amount of kanji, I found that I was only memorizing them in a specific order, and I was unable to identify them when they were taken out of this list format. From that point on, I began making my own kanji flashcards. It takes a fair amount of time to make the cards themselves, but to me it has been worth it as I can study kanji anytime, anywhere, and I can easily review kanji i learned in the past.

Kanji flashcards

Kanji flashcards

Recently, electronic solutions have made studying kanji flashcards even easier. For one thing, you don’t have to spend all that time making the flashcards. More importantly, you don’t have to make the hairy decisions on whether you are ready to put a flashcard to in the “completed” pile and move on to new ones. Instead, you can just press a button ranging from “easy” to “difficult” and the program will decide when to show you that flashcard again.

The most popular flashcard app among my ryugakusei friends is Anki. Anki allows you to either choose your own flashcard lists or download other people’s lists from the internet. While I am still running through physical flashcards I created long ago, I intend to make the switch to Anki once I finish studying them.

3. Talk to Japanese People

Out of the exchange students I know who did not speak any Japanese prior to coming here, there is a clear-cut difference in skill between those who have sought out Japanese conversations and those who have been too nervous to try. I urge those who are coming here to take every opportunity to practice their spoken Japanese, as I find it to be both more fun and more instantly gratifying than classroom learning. It is not a replacement for studying, as casual conversation cannot teach you proper grammar or kanji, but what it can do is increase your vocabulary immensely as well as your speaking and listening skills. Plus, it is a great feeling to converse with Japanese friends in their native language!

Japanese People

Japanese people

I hope you find my tips helpful. Nihongo no benkyou wo Ganbare!

Tokyo Beach Day: Zushi

When I proposed last week to a New Zealander ryugakusei friend that we hit the beach on Saturday, she responded with an emphatic “no.” The beaches around Tokyo have a reputation for being  dirty, and this girl had already made up her mind that she could never swim there. However, after talking to a friend who is a longtime foreign resident of Tokyo, she came around to the idea, provided we went to Zushi, which is apparently the cleanest beach in the area (a statement I cannot verify at all). After ribbing her for declining my beach invitation then turning around and inviting me to go the beach two days later, I agreed to go, and our Saturday beach adventure was on.

The beach at Zushi

The beach at Zushi

“This is like spring break,” my American friend remarked as we arrived at the beach. I could see where he was coming from. Lined with shops selling overpriced food, bottles of corona, beach chair rentals, and massages, Zushi is home to an eclectic crowd. I spotted Japanese “bros,” (or “yarou” as my Japanese friend called them) “gyaru,” (tan, artificially blonde Japanese women with long fingernails)  older men wearing thong-like swimsuits, wind-surfers, men who appeared to play football for the University of Miami, one man with circular nipple piercings that looked like they were made of tinfoil, Brazilian women wearing skimpy Brazilian bikinis, Japanese women wearing skimpy Brazilian bikinis, and other foreigners too numerous and varied to describe here. Many people set up tents and canopies to protect from the wind, and the Brazilians even marked their area with a Brazilian flag. In a country where both tans and tattoos are rare, there was no shortage of either on the part of both Japanese and foreigners. It felt like someone had scooped handfuls of people from beaches across the world and dropped them off in Zushi, creating a strange cultural mishmash and above that an energetic beach atmosphere. While there were some children playing at the beach, they were far outnumbered by the scores of adults drinking and chilling with friends new and old.

Check out that good-looking group of ryugakusei!

Check out that good-looking group of ryugakusei!

Unfortunately, the beach was a bit more on the “shelly” side than I had hoped, but the absence of pristine sand did not dissuade us from enjoying ourselves.  On the contrary, my friends and I had a great time eating, drinking, swimming, sun-bathing, and generally enjoying the eclectic scene. The water itself was not dirty and I found it to be extremely pleasant.

Exhausted from the hot Japanese sun, my group decided to call it quits in the late afternoon.  As we packed up to leave, I got the vibe that the fairly chill beach would soon transition into an all out-party. A group of American-looking dudes in RVCA shirts and snapback hats longboarded past us on our way out:

Longboarder Guy: “Where are you guys from?”
American Friend: “San Diego!”
Longboarder Guy: “Party!”

It was a fitting end to a fun day at the beach.

Parents Not Told of Intruder

Word has come out that a man who injured three students in a knife attack at a Tokyo primary school last month had likely previously entered the school. It is not confirmed that these two incidents involve the same man, but witnesses of the first incident do believe this to be the case.

schoolThe man originally entered the school to complain about noise from children practicing for an athletic meet and eventually left at the request of school staff. Although an email alert system was instituted in 2011 to contact parents about an incidence such as this, the school decided that this man was not dangerous enough for that treatment and only alerted the Nerima Ward Board of Education.

Some parents are outraged as the man was apparently mumbling to himself as he left the school and shouted such phrases as “Children will be murdered.”

In my eyes, (and I would like to think most other people’s) that phrase alone merits a serious reaction from the school. Although it may have been seemed unlikely to the school that this man would ever return to attack students, it is best to play it safe and take threats such as these seriously when schools are involved. Obviously, I was not present for the incident, and hindsight is 20-20, but it doesn’t get much worse than “children will be murdered.”

Instituting the email alert system for parents was a positive first step to safety for these primary school children, but this measure alone failed to prevent the attack. Safety measures will need to be increased at this school, and schools across Japan should use this scary incident as an opportunity to discuss improvements for child safety.

However, while it is extremely disturbing that a man such as this could enter a school so freely and harm young children, we must remember that instances such as these are rare and make sure not to overreact. Cameras and alert systems are good ideas, but precautions seen in other countries such as security guards and metal detectors seem like overkill to me.

Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Nick Sugihara

A native of San Diego, California, Nick Sugihara attends Bard College in Upstate New York and is currently an exchange student at Waseda University in Tokyo. He has begun filming for his project “Growing City,” a documentary on urban agriculture in Tokyo, but is still seeking funding. Nick was kind enough to stop by to discuss his project with us.

Nick Sugihara

Nick Sugihara

Ryugakusei Town: What was your inspiration behind growing city?

Nick Sugihara: When i came to college i started working on farms a little bit and quickly fell in love with the work. Deciding to come to tokyo was kind of a separate thing from that but when i got here i really missed that kind of work and being involved in agriculture so i started looking around for ways that people were interacting with farming in the city.

RT: What is unique about Tokyo compared to other urban farming?

NS: One thing is the effect that Fukushima has had. A lot of the new urban farming projects that I know of and even some of the older ones have been influenced by people who are afraid of radiation. Some of the farms and farmer’s markets have seen a drop in business as people are unwilling to buy food that is grown near tokyo…There is also a sort of renewed interest in where people’s food comes from. With the fear comes a kind of “hype” and awareness about what’s going on.

RT: Are you afraid?

NS: No. if i’m living here, i want my food from here. The only things those plants are being exposed to is what I’m exposed to every day. If I was scared I would move.

RT: What are some challenges of urban farming in tokyo?

NS: Taxes are expensive…

RT: How about the lack of space?

NS: I think a really common misconception is that you need a lot of space to grow a lot of food. That isn’t really the case. I talked to a guy i know at Bard who runs the farms there and they just harvested 210 pounds of garlic from a little over an acre of land. The scale thing is not such an issue. We’ve been sort of tricked into thinking it requires a lot of land to grow a lot of food in the states but this is probably due to the fact that “big ag” (America’s massive farming industry) has taken over so much land. But i think tokyo has plenty of space to grow a lot of food.

RT: What do you hope to show in the movie?

NS: I hope to show the “state” of urban farming/agriculture in tokyo and the real tangible things people are doing. “What it looks like:” not an abstract concept but as something that is happening.

Urban Farming

Urban Farming

RT: What has surprised you with your experience making this film in Japan?

NS: I was surprised at how willing to talk to be a lot of the farmers were. Not all of them were, but a lot of them were very nice and open and excited to talk to me about farming.

RT: Thanks for stopping by Nick.

NS: It was a pleasure.

Make sure to check out the trailer for Nick’s project and see how you can get involved at