Friday Night History 54 (S2E21): Waffle on a Stick

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One of the oldest sentiments of humanity about cooking: “yeah, but what if we put it on a stick?”

Okonomiyaki is a staple of Japanese cuisine, and a well known comfort food. Most people who’ve heard of it have heard of 

two major varieties of it– the Hiroshima style and Osaka style, with the distinction being that Hiroshima style has noodles cooked in, and gets made in a layered format like a crepe. Regardless of variety, one often sees it topped with the ubiquitous kewpie mayonnaise, or with a tonkatsu sauce like Bulldog.

While modern okonomiyaki emerged from the late Meiji era, one theory has it that its original form was pioneered by the Azuchi-Momoyama tea master Sen no Rikyu, with the aim of serving with tea during his famous tea ceremonies that were the forerunner of modern cha-no-yu.

But these aren’t the only major varieties of okonomiyaki and similar dishes in Japan. Monjayaki is the Kanto-region equivalent of okonomiyaki. But there’s a Tohoku version too, one that I didn’t recognize at first because the visual profile was different– a roll rather than a pancake. There are a few sub-variants, but today, we’re going to focus on the Yamagata one.

A roll? Yes, a roll. Let me back up and explain.

Dondonyaki, like the broader family of okonomiyaki variations, is a recipe that relies on wheat-based batter cooked into a sort of pancake. In Hiroshima, the term for the original form of this recipe was issen yōshoku  (one sen western food). The Hiroshima form of this recipe was made of wheat batter, green onion, and bonito flakes, cooked into a pancake. Modern Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is a postwar innovation, borne of the exigencies of a Hiroshima slowly putting itself back together after the war’s end and in the A-bomb’s aftermath. Made with whatever was at hand, in addition to the base ingredients as available, and popularized due to the abundance of US food aid to occupied Japan which significantly favored wheat flour, it took the name okonomiyaki– “as-you-like-it” yaki.

A Meiji-era yatai in a print by Ikeda Terukata. (PD)

But Yamagata-style dondonyaki originated in the immediate prewar period, circa 1938. It was the work of a local chef named Ōba Kamekichi, who went to Tokyo to study cooking and went into business on his return home. He was a fixture around Yamagata City for many years, a short man in geta with a hand towel tucked into his belt, whose yatai food stall had a famous sign that read “Dondonyaki delicious enough to drool over.” You might not be familiar with the concept of a yatai by name, but if you’ve seen depictions of shrine festivals with their long rows of food stalls making yakisoba or takoyaki or taiyaki– those stalls are broadly called yatai.

The name dondonyaki originated in this era, because drumming on a taiko — Japanese onomatopeia being “don don” for a drumbeat– is how Ōba attracted customers to his yatai stall. Although the instrument eventually was swapped for a bell, it began as a drum– and thus, the origin of the name “dondonyaki.”

Yamagata-style Dondonyaki. (source, CC 3.0)

And it’s the format that I think is of particular interest– today, it’s rolled around a pair of chopsticks.

The gist of it is that the dondonyaki’s usual base of ingredients include greeen onion, bonito flakes, and konbu seaweed. It’s made on a griddle, flipped to be evenly cooked, and then slowly rolled around the chopsticks and cooked just a little bit more before it’s doused in a savory sauce when served. As originally made, it had a sort of half-moon shape– some variations in the Tohoku region still have that shape. That being said, it was served on a sort of rough paper wrapper, and as the draw was significantly to children, they weren’t able to handle a fresh-off-the-griddle dondonyaki with ease. So Ōba came up with the elegant solution of rolling it instead, around first one stick and eventually a pair of disposable chopsticks, for the ease of eating without scorched fingertips. According to present day Yamagata-based dondonyaki restaurant Cocoyumeya, there was a further reason for dondonyaki’s shape and consistency. With its roots in Tokyo-based monjayaki of the Taisho era, it was part of the broader constellation of dagashi– cheap snacks– that were ubiquitous through the Taisho era and still survive today– indeed, in western Japan, the issen yōshoku were made by dagashi vendors in that region. But monjayaki’s looser consistency did not make for easily portable snacking, and so Ōba making the snack a little bit firmer in consistency, together with the later innovation of rolling it around a stick, is what made Yamagata-style dondonyaki as we know it today.

Today, dondonyaki can be in fact bought from brick and mortar stores around Yamagata Prefecture. However, some businesses like Cocoyumeya continue Ōba Kamekichi’s original yatai tradition, albeit in motorized fashion, bringing the Yamagata flavor to Tokyo and beyond, served out of food trucks. Cocoyumeya even has its own mascot, a character called Keeko-chan, whose name is a pun on the Yamagata dialect imperative form of “eat”– “Kue” in Standard Japanese– “eat it!” becomes “Kee.” And dondonyaki has spread to neighboring Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures, where local tastes and trends have taken it in still different directions.

All in all, I’d say it’s pretty solid legacy for a creative, enterprising local Yamagata chef who became the stuff of local legend, for rolling up an okonomiyaki cousin around a stick.


Friday Night History 53 (S2E20): The Mail Carrier Cometh

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Yeah, yeah, I know, let’s get to it…

Something we take for granted today is the mail system, I think all the moreso given that so much of our communication happens via email or DM.

With all the talk of federation and defederation since the mass migration to the Fediverse last fall, it’s good to remember that there are other examples of this, and one of them is how the mail works. If I– sitting with my butt parked in Pittsburgh as I record this– want to send a letter to someone living in Kome-ga-fukuro in downtown Sendai, I send it through the US Postal Service, at one of the iconic blue mailboxes around my neighborhood, or by taking it to the post office down the road a ways. The US Postal Service, along the way, hands it off to the Japan Post that gets it the rest of the way to its destination on the familiar, winding banks of the Hirose. It isn’t one network, but rather multiple networks that are interconnected.

But people in the Edo period wrote letters and sent mail, too. So, how did this work in Edo period Sendai?, I found myself wondering. Let’s examine this in a little detail this week, by considering how someone in the Sendai Castle town, whatever their caste status, would get a personal letter to Edo.

The first thing to remember is that the mail system relied on the highway, shipping, and post station system that connected the Japanese islands. This was the connective tissue. You might have heard of the Tokaido, the road which ran from Edo to Kyoto and had 53 stations, famously depicted by Andō Hiroshige– this was just one of the several major highways of the same sort. In the north, there were several such roads, and the one Sendai sat astride was the Ōshū Highway. Sendai Castle town was station number 70, counting from station number 1– Senju– in modern Tokyo. The roads had been there for awhile– in their oldest form, the Kyoto-based imperial government built them as a means of ensuring smoother communications, flow of goods and taxes, and travel for officials to and from the capital, and if needed, armies. Over the centuries, the road network grew, and in the Edo period, it benefited from the Shogunate’s oversight. I should say further, here, that just because there were roads under the oversight of the national government, doesn’t mean that there were bridges on those roads– bridges are a military convenience, and the Shogunate wanted to make it as hard as possible for potential rivals to march on Edo. So any messengers of any kind might be on horse some of the way, but they’d have to ford rivers in other places.

Now, if the domainal administration in Aoba Castle had correspondence to send anywhere, it would be sent through the domain’s own couriers. They had arrangements for this in both peacetime as well as wartime. The minutiae of how the domain– as did other domains and the Shogunate– had its own arrangements for mail, is a subject of its own we can get into in further detail at a later date. But suffice it to say, as ever we’re here to learn about the less covered stuff. So instead, let’s try to understand how everyone else sent and received mail– everyone who wasn’t samurai, but also samurai who weren’t writing in an official capacity and wanted to send private correspondence. Obviously you could have friends or acquaintances take mail for you, but we’re assuming that’s not what’s being done here.

So you write a letter to your friend who’s a clerk for the Echigoya store in Edo, right. Who do you give it to in the first place? Who do you hire? Two businesses in Sendai– Kyōya 京屋 and Shimaya 島屋 – led in mail carrying inside and beyond Sendai domain. Mail sent through them was labeled either Kyōya-dayori (care of Kyōya) or Shimaya-dayori (care of Shimaya), depending on who handled the mail. It wasn’t just letters, and it wasn’t just to and from Edo, but we’re taking a letter to Edo as our case study here, so bear with me.

So these mail carriers would be obvious by their attire– overcoats and crossbody bags with the monogram of whichever business the carrier worked for. You might think of it a bit like a modern mail carrier’s satchel. They’d also be wearing the kyahan– leggings – and tekkō– gauntlets, sort of fingerless gloves– that are iconic in depictions of Edo period travelers.

The Kyōya mailmen as depicted by Suzuki Shōzō in the early Showa era

So you hire one of these two businesses, your letter goes in the monogrammed luggage that this person literally shoulders. They go down the Ōshū Highway, out of Sendai domain, up through Shirakawa, down into the Kantō Plain, all the way until they make it past Senju and in to Edo, where they’d deliver your letter to Echigoya. And while they’re making this trip, others like them are traveling in other directions. Letter-writing in the Edo period was very big, and it wound up having an influence on the development of literature, too.

Now of course, this wasn’t a single, national post system. Kyōya and Shimaya resembled private courier services we know well in the modern world, like a DHL or a FedEx or other companies of their ilk. But that was a feature of how the decentralized Shogunate-domain system worked– the Shogunate was only a national government up to a point, so a true national postal system it oversaw wasn’t quite in the cards. But it oversaw the highways, which facilitated the transit of mail by companies like these two based in Sendai, or by the messengers who worked for feudal domains. But I think that in this case, it’s the common highway network, controlled and maintained by the Shogunate most of the way, that was what tied these different companies and services together– what federated them, in a sense.

In 1871, Maejima Hisoka– one of the reformist young guns who came out of the Edo-Meiji transition smelling of roses because he threw in with the winning side just in the nick of time– founded the earliest iteration of what is now the Japan Post. By 1877, under Maejima’s leadership, Japan joined the Universal Postal Union, an international body that coordinates international postal policies, and the private postal companies like those that ran letters between Edo and Sendai were no more. In the end, I guess that as always, all I’m saying is that as with so much else about the Meiji era’s advancements, it isn’t that this was a generation of brilliant visionaries who invented things out of thin air.


  • Donald Keene. Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 370.
  • Patricia L. Maclachlan. “Post Office Politics in Modern Japan: The Postmasters, Iron Triangles, and the Limits of Reform.” Journal of Japanese Studies30, no. 2 (2004): 281–313.
  • ____. “Storming the Castle: The Battle for Postal Reform in Japan.” Social Science Japan Journal9, no. 1 (2006): 1–18.
  • Baron Takaharu Mitsui. “The System of Communications at the Time of the Meiji Restoration.” Monumenta Nipponica4, no. 1 (1941): 88–101.
  • Suzuki Shōzō. Sendai Fūzoku-shi (Sendai: Ukaen, 1937), pp. 161-162. [Archived by the National Diet Library.]

(Friday Night History) An Announcement

Yeah, yeah, it’s been a hot minute.

For those who are new around here: FNH was an off the cuff series of Friday night Twitter threads, which I began in a bar while watching furries sing karaoke. I felt like opining about something in my historical wheelhouse, and so I did a thread, which grew into a series, which became something of a phenomenon.

But burnout is a hell of a thing.

 Also, my work with Unseen Japan has increased, and a lot of what I was doing for Friday Night History, has been going to Unseen Japan. However, while the focus overlaps, there are some things that work better here than there, where the focus is more on news first and then on culture and history. So I think I have a clearer sense of where to draw the line.

And I’ve got my first few episodes on the way.

Here’s what I have planned: doing them in sets of 3, queueing them up for release on the Anchor side, and doing threads on Mastodon, and blogpost on WordPress, in an evolution of what I used to do on Twitter.

Unlike Cleyera, which is an unscripted podcast, this is a scripted podcast, and will remain so— thus, you can expect to find transcripts, for this, as a regular feature. However, because of Cleyera, my editing skills have improved since you last saw me on this feed.

The subject matter will be one-off Japanese history and culture content, at least for the moment— I began an epic Boshin War series, I know, but I think that’s something best saved for later, when I’m a little less scrambling to fundraise and keep the lights on.

Of course, all of this is only possible at all, thanks to listeners like you, especially regular patrons at

Our first 3 episodes back will be about the mail between Sendai and Edo, about the Tohoku version of okonomiyaki, and about how you might recognize the procession of Lord Date from a distance if you saw him coming in or going out of Edo in the Edo period (the smoke, it’s the smoke!).

Thank you for your listenership all these many years.

Sit tight. We’ll be back soon.

Anthrocon 2023: Come say hi!

Hey, it’s been awhile!

This is just a post to let you all know that I will be present Urban Fox Tales from Old Japan: A Sendai Kitsune Romp at Anthrocon 2023, here in Pittsburgh. Scheduling is still TBD, but for updates, check out

Anthrocon is a good time whether or not one is furry– and the display of artistic, literary, and technical achievement there always benefits my own work. If you’re there, I look forward to seeing you.

My work on Miyagi folklore in general and Sendai’s folklore in particular has greatly benefited from Mihara Ryokichi, who helped save kokeshi dolls as an art form, and gathered a great deal of his region’s folklore that was at risk of being lost altogether. To learn more about him, read on in my article for Unseen Japan:

Bearing the Most and Bowing the Lowest

It has, in the fullness of time, come to me to be the new face of Balance of Seven Press, as its managing director, so I’d like to say a few words by way of introduction.


Once, in what increasingly feels like a lifetime ago, my first grownup job was as a font coder and messenger at a press in Beirut, Lebanon. My career has taken me through academe and libraries, but has brought me back, in a real sense, to where I began.

Transitions of any sort are a challenge, and involve some measure of uncertainty. But they are also an opportunity for new beginnings and still greater heights, if only we embrace that measure of uncertainty. We can rise to that challenge today.

I am Dr. Nyri A. Bakkalian, and I’m the new Managing Director of Balance of Seven. Some of you already know me as one of the press’s authors– I’ve participated in 3 of its anthologies; the press has also published two of my novels. To say I have a stake here is an understatement: I am living proof of how this press changes lives and trains up professionals.

When I began with Balance of Seven as an author, I was a new PhD graduate who suddenly had to reinvent herself in the face of a callous world and being overqualified or too risky for every job she applied for. All I had from which to build a new career was my writing, and I was worried about being the archetypal Starving Artist. Founder and outgoing CEO Ynes Freeman taught me how to think like a businesswoman even as I grew as a creative. In the years since then, I’ve become a successful freelance author, scholar, streamer, and podcaster, able to make this work my full time focus. I have also learned to constantly hone my understanding of project management, social media marketing, and bridge-building with individuals and organizations in and around the publishing and book selling industry. I am eager to bring that to bear in this new role.

It is gratifying that I am not alone. Tod Tinker will continue in being a central figure in the press’s operations. Several others from among our authors will be stepping up as well in a staff role. We come from a variety of backgrounds and bring a variety of skillsets, all of which will be instrumental in where we hope to take the press next. I will be better positioned to be my best as director with their help, and am humbled to work alongside them, for their presence will keep me honest in turn. There is a Japanese expression: minoru hodo atama o sagaru inaho kana 実るほど頭が下がる稲穂哉. The rice-stalk that bears the most, bows the lowest.

We have some fantastic new titles and projects coming your way this year, which you’ll be hearing about soon. We will also be improving how we get our books farther and into more hands, and further sharpening the ways in which we help our authors hone their skill at advocating for their own and each other’s works.

In short, we will all rise and be raised together.

So. Are you ready?

On Death, Rebirth, and the “Shiny Bits in Between”

Georgina Key’s debut novel Shiny Bits in Between was published by Balance of Seven Press two months before my own debut novel Grey Dawn. While I have crossed paths with Georgina in online spaces run by the press, only recently did I remedy my oversight of not having read her work sooner. What I found was a haunting, profound meditation on death, rebirth, grief, and the things that are points of light in the darkness.

We queer folk often reinvent ourselves by necessity in a world that is not always accepting. We constantly seek community and moments of joy and respite and whatever closure we can find– the things that bring light in the dark. In that regard, I resonated strongly with Dorie and Clementine’s respective journeys. Through a journey that weaves like footsteps in beach sand, they stumble and grasp and seek, sometimes imperfectly, for new beginnings after the unthinkable loss of both their children. My favorite author, 19th-century educator and soldier Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, wrote “What has gone takes something with it, and when this is of the dear, nothing can fill the place. All the changes touched the border of sorrows.” There is, ultimately, nothing that can quite fill the void of two children lost to sickness and the waves.

And yet, as Chamberlain also said, “indeed, in the hour of sorrow and disaster, do we not all belong to each other?” Dorie and Clementine find that belonging, and manage to find a new sort of reconciliation, healing, and community on the Bolivar Peninsula.

In light of recent anti-trans legislation coming out of that state, it was heartening to read a story this hauntingly beautiful, set in a part of Texas that I’d never heard of before. It was heartening also to note the plot thread that featured a young lesbian, Izzie, finding understanding where she least expected it, in Dorie and Rennie and other straight adults who might not have understood perfectly, but were profoundly decent where she rightfully expected ostracism. This, like the rest of the story, was artfully woven and speaks to what could be, if people in positions like the adults in her life stop and try to be decent and kind rather than jump to denunciation and harm.

I eagerly await more from Georgina Key, and I urge you to read Shiny Bits in Between and ask your local library to acquire it for others to enjoy in turn.