Japan’s Moonlight Nagara train service ends, leaving a hole in overnight rail travel

A sad day for travellers, especially Seishun 18 ticket holders.

While Japan’s Shinkansen bullet trains get all the limelight on the international stage, where they’re loved for their punctuality, speed and spick-and-span interiors, there are plenty of other Japanese trains equally deserving of our love and attention.

The Moonlight Nagara is one such train, reliably ferrying passengers across the land on long-haul overnight trips between Tokyo and Gifu, spanning a total of five prefectures and covering a distance of roughly 442 kilometres (275 miles).

▼ The six-hour-40-minute train journey takes around nine hours by car, using expressways.

The current rapid overnight train service, operated by Central Japan Railway Company and East Japan Railway Company, has been active since 1996. However, in recent years its popularity has declined due to competition from cheap overnight bus services, and after its schedule was reduced to busy seasonal periods only, it’s now been announced that the service will stop running altogether.

▼ The 165 series Moonlight Nagara in 2000

▼ And the 183/189 series in 2007

The announcement came as sad news for many, but nobody is feeling the loss more than users of the Seishun 18 Kippu. This discounted ticket package–limited for use during four weeks in winter, five weeks in spring, and around seven weeks in summer–contains five days’ worth of unlimited travel on local and regular Japan Railways express trains for just 2,410 yen (US$23.24) per day.

▼ We once used the ticket to travel with a discount to Korea by ferry.

Considering a one-way journey from Tokyo Station to Gifu’s …continue reading


Japanese professor launches crowdfunding project to recreate amazura, a lost Heian Era sweetener

Amazura was a popular sweetener among Heian aristocrats but its method of production was lost to time after the widespread diffusion of sugar.

With the proliferation of patisseries and baked goods in Japan today, it’s easy to forget that table sugar wasn’t always around. It’s believed to have been introduced to Japan in 754 via envoys from the Tang Dynasty in China but didn’t become widely used until the Edo period (1603-1868). Up until then, another plant-derived sweetener, called amazura, was enjoyed by aristocrats of the Heian period (794-1185). It was often noted in classical works of literature of the time, such as The Pillow Book, Konjaku Monogatarishu, and Uji Shui Monogatari, which detailed its use drizzled over shaved ice or boiled in a gruel with diced sweet potatoes for a dish known as imogayu that was served at aristocratic banquets.

▼ An excerpt from Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book (completed in 1002) references amazura at the top of the third line from the right.

Fast forward to the Reiwa period (2019-present). Ritsumeikan University Assistant Professor Yukihiro Komatsu, a member of the Ritsumeikan Global Innovation Research Organization, is now attempting to recreate amazura for the modern age. It may sound like a fun and fairly straightforward project, but here’s the catch: both the list of raw materials and production method used to make amazura all but disappeared from written records after sugar became more widely available in the Edo Period.

▼ Komatsu introduces amazura and his research goals in this short video.

In order to accomplish his goal, Komatsu has appealed for the public’s support on Bluebacks Outreach, a unique crowdfunding website which aims to bridge scientific inquiries with …continue reading


Japan’s Matsuya restaurant chain debuts Massaman Curry, we find it Thai-rrifically tasty

Matsuya is branching out beyond typical Japanese curries, and we couldn’t be happier!

While Japan’s own sweet, mild curry is making a splash on distant shores, one of the country’s homegrown restaurant chains, Matsuya, is taking a leaf from various other countries’ curry cookbooks. Though Matsuya serves a perfectly adequate spicy curry of its own– the Gorogoro Chicken Curry — it’s a seasonal item and is cycled out frequently like most of Matsuya’s ever-evolving menu.

There’s a spicy, delicious light on the horizon, though. Matsuya has turned to Thailand for inspiration for their latest addition to the roster, with a new Massaman curry option being tested at a limited number of their stores. A regular serving costs 730 yen (US$7.05), a pricey option when contrasted with the 490 yen standard Japanese curry. The banner promoting the curry does bill it as “allegedly the most delicious food in the world”, though, so it seems like a reasonable price in that context.

While the true origins of Massaman are still hotly debated, as it’s argued that the dish contains considerable Indian and Malay influence, it’s commonly associated with Thai cuisine. The name “Massaman” itself is a corruption of the word musulman, an old Persian word for “Muslim”. Due to its Islamic origins, the dish is most commonly cooked with chicken as the main meat, but variations with beef or goat meat are popular too.

Our Japanese-language reporter, Tasuku Egawa, headed to one chain that was serving the curry and promptly placed an order.

▼ Matsuya’s version uses chicken.

It arrived promptly, on one of Matsuya’s typical lacquered trays. His curry was, naturally, accompanied by a healthy serving …continue reading