In Japan, people give gifts to each other on many occasions. Don't you have one or two Japanese friends, who give you gifts whenever they return from Japan despite the fact that you've never given them anything? You thought, "This is awkward, do you like me or something?!" right? I have no idea where this custom comes from, but we are taught to give gifts to friends from a young age.
When my mom came to visit me from Japan, it was such a headache to try to think of, "What to get for her friends." We went around EVERYWHERE to find American gifts. And when I go home every year, I have to bring so many chocolates and nuts (pistachio are very expensive in Japan) so that she can give it all away to neighbors and her friends. I don't even know them, but the fact that I, her son who lives in NYC, is obligated to buy gifts for people I haven't seen for like 15 years is such a pain.
In the middle of summer, and the end of the year, many Japanese people send gifts to their colleagues, people who they are close with, etc. I think this ritual is to show gratitude to people. My Americanized self thinks, "Why can't they just say thanks, instead of giving gifts?" But it is very Japanese. They show their gratitude with goods, not with the heart. Us Japanese people are cold-hearted people anyways.
As summertime gifts, many people give mizu-yokan. Yokan is Japanese sweets, made with mushed beans and sugar, solidified using agar (or kanten). Its consistency is very thick, and it is usually eaten with hot tea. During the summer months in Japan, where it's 100% humidity and above 100 degrees, it's too sweet, and tea is too hot, so some smart person diluted yokan and made mizu-yokan (translation: water-yokan). For those who are not familiar with mizu-yokan, it's like loose red bean jello. It doesn't sound appetizing, but its consistency, and subtle sweetness is very refreshing.
It's one of the easiest recipes-- seriously, no one should fail this.
All you need is a can of red beans (1lb), plus powdered agar (you can buy it at JPN grocery stores), water (600ml), and 2 tbsp brown sugar. Powdered agar is very convenient, and although you can substitute with gelatin, I highly recommend finding agar agar since the texture will be quite different.
1. Mix red beans and 300ml water in blender. Blend for about a minute.
2. Strain it. This is important to have very smooth texture.
3. Boil 1 pack of agar (4 gram) with 300ml water, continuously stir.
4. add brown sugar and dissolve, then mix it with red bean mixture. Pour into individual cup, chill until settled.
No matter how hot it may be, using the stove for two minutes isn't so bad. Since cans of red beans already have enough sugar, you can omitc the brown sugar as well. It's cold, smooth, subtly sweet and very refreshing. I am giving this to my colleagues as my gratitude, though I never get reciprocated. Wow, I am so Japanese.