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While attending college in Tokyo, I spent the year living with a Japanese family in order to more fully immerse myself in the language and culture. But aside from being a budding linguist, I was also someone whose culinary skills weren’t quite up to even the challenge of preparing those fancy instant ramens with multiple flavoring packets, so the living arrangement including two home-cooked meals a day was gravy.

Of course, there wasn’t much actual gravy, as most of our meals were traditional Japanese fare. Dinner was always followed by a cup of freshly brewed green tea, served piping hot. Every night though, by the time I could start drinking my tea, my host parents had already finished theirs. Was there some special technique for drinking hot tea? Was I doing something wrong?

As has so often been the case in my life, yes, I was.

Upon noticing it took me several minutes to take even a single sip, my host mom remarked that I was “nekojita,” which literally mean’s “a cat’s tongue.” Coming from felines’ supposed sensitivity to heat, nekojita is used to describe people who have trouble eating or drinking foods and beverages served at high temperatures.

▼ Like this, but with more cursing and yelling of “My God that’s hot!”

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This actually comes up more often than you’d think in daily Japanese life. Aside from tea, noodles such as ramen and soba are commonly served with steam still billowing off the broth. The deep bowls used for rice dishes at restaurants such as Yoshinoya ensure that the lower strata of rice remain hot throughout the meal, and then there’s okonomiyaki, which is sometimes eaten directly from the flat grill seconds after being cooked, when it’s still at a painful temperature.

▼ Baby, how can you hurt me when I love you so much?

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Nekojita doesn’t appear to be caused by any sort of genetic or physiological condition. As a matter of fact, the inside of the mouth is considerably less sensitive to heat than some other parts of the body. There can be as many as four heat receptors in a one-centimeter-square patch of skin on the face or fingers, compared to at most a single receptor for a similarly-sized area on the inside of the mouth. This explains why even when you’re able to sip your hot coffee, it still burns if you spill some on your hand.

Instead, nekojita seems to be largely a result of just not being used to downing hot solid foods and liquids. If parents only feed their children foods which are thoroughly cooled, they won’t develop any tolerance for hot foods, and this aversion will carry over into adulthood. Anecdotal evidence of many people who have nekojita being firstborn children, who tend to be the most strictly and cautiously raised, seems to support this theory.

While we haven’t come across any advice for eating hot solid foods, there does seem to be a useful technique for dealing with hot tea. Apparently, people who have nekojita tend to sip hot drinks with their tongues extended. The tongue is most sensitive to heat at its tip, though, so this just makes the liquid feel hotter.

Instead, the tip of the tongue should be pressed against the back of the bottom teeth, keeping it out of the way of the incoming liquid. Instead of tilting the cup back and letting the tea flow directly into your mouth, inhale the tea with a bit of air to further cool it, in the same way that ramen broth is slurped in Japan.

Follow the whole proess up with a prolonged, “Ahhhh!” or “Attamaru!” (“That really warms you up!”), and you’re all set to drink green tea like a native. Best of luck!

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Source: Naver Matome
Top image: Rakuten
Insert images: Seesaa, Watanabe Seisenkan, Osakazine