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O-chūgen: Hand-picked gourmet gifts courtesy of the postman

by Steve Trautlein

Even though the Japanese didn’t invent the idea of exchanging gifts, they seem to be doing everything they can to convince themselves that they did. This is a culture, after all, that celebrates Christmas without Jesus, piles White Day on top of Valentine’s Day, and has developed a whole species of cloth — furoshiki —for use chiefly as a means of wrapping presents.

And then there are the summer and wintertime rituals of o-chūgen and o-seibo, which see Japanese people bestowing gifts on family, friends and colleagues at the very times of year when such gestures will be most appreciated.

Foreigners may be familiar with o-chūgen and o-seibo from the seasonal displays of food and drink in supermarkets, department stores and convenience stores. The gift boxes contain everything from low-end pick-me-ups (canned coffee) to high-end treats (Kumamoto melons), and are distinguished by artful, courier-friendly packaging. In fact, the first few times I saw colorful arrays of senbei rice crackers and cushioned, travel-ready cases of Suntory Premium Malts beer at my local convenience store, I wanted to send some to myself.

No dice. O-chūgen and o-seibo are strictly for thanking the people in your life — be they far-flung relations, business clients or workplace higher-ups — who have done you a good turn during the past half year. Indeed, the traditions have their roots in ancient notions of custom and hospitality. O-chūgen, typically observed in mid-July, is said to have been influenced by both the Buddhist o-Bon festival and a Taoist summer ceremony in which people beseech the gods for forgiveness.

Newcomers will be impressed by how laid-back the rituals are. Deadlines, for example, are conspicuously lax. If you miss the December 20 cutoff for o-seibo, just wait a few days and repurpose your present as an o-nenga New Year’s offering. The price of most gifts is about ¥3,000. And pretty much anything you send will be considered a success, as long as it vaguely aligns with the interests of the recipient. (Though one taboo item is a wristwatch, which can be taken to imply, “You must work harder.”) Since just about everyone likes to eat and drink, the most popular presents have always been food and booze.

All of this should make o-chūgen and o-seibo particularly appealing to younger Japanese, whose newfound enthusiasm for traditional culinary specialties from around the country has led them to seek out and share the pleasures of off-price, underappreciated foodstuffs. And yet, not a single person out of the handful I spoke to for this article — all of them under 50 years old — says they’ve ever taken part in o-chūgen or o-seibo. In fact, the mere mention of the practice elicits a faint smile of embarrassment, like asking young Americans if they’ve ever been to a square dance or a drive-in movie.

Yet during the past several years, an effort to revive o-chūgen and o-seibo has come from an unlikely source: the Japan Post network. In 2007, when government officials transformed the postal agency into a semi-private corporation, the new entity established a catalog-based mail-order service that allows consumers to browse thousands of products at the turn of a page. Where customers once had to rely on the staff at a store to guide them through choosing, ordering and shipping the gifts, JP simplifies the process via a lush glossy catalog with a simple order form, complemented by a delivery service that no other company can match.

“What we can offer is a network of (24,000) post offices around the country,” says Japan Post PR rep Ikumi Odawara. “And being able to ship directly from the source allows us to provide a safe and secure product.”

Thanks to their close connections with suppliers, which range from remote farmers to large corporations, JP staff are able to personally select and vet all the products. And they certainly choose well. The annual o-chūgen and o-seibo catalogs brim with such pleasures as red king crab from the Sea of Okhotsk, Maruichi brand mentaiko (cod roe), Chiba peanuts, Wakayama persimmon sherbet and cured meats from Nippon Ham.

The response has been impressive. Odawara says o-chūgen and o-seibo orders accounted for nearly a quarter of the ¥1 billion in mail-order business the post office did last year.

“Japanese people think of o-chūgen and o-seibo as expensive gifts. But recently, customers are trying to select products that the receiver will know were thoughtfully chosen. They’re not just sending a gift; they’re sending appreciation.”


Avocado rising

Broiled, sliced, mashed, fried — local chefs are consummating their love affair with avocados in all sorts of ways. The ingredient du jour has been both starring in Japanese dishes (paired with maguro tuna and spread over rice) and playing a supporting role in the ongoing craze for Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine. But we didn’t realize how overwhelming the passion had become until catching wind of a couple of recent restaurant promotions. The off-price Gusto emporium recently ran an avocado-themed campaign that included, among other dishes, a Salisbury steak topped with tomato, bacon, egg and nothing less than half an avocado. Not to be outdone, the Freshness Burger fast-food chain just got done selling a limited-time “Hawaiian” tuna burger with saimin sauce, shrimp paste and — what else? — sliced avocado.

Steve Trautlein is a freelance journalist eating his way throughout Japan.