October 06, 2005
Japan, Expectations, and Food
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Recently I saw an American late-night talk show interview in which the guest had recently visited Japan, and the subject of raw food came up. As if it's hard to find anything but raw fish in Japan. I mean, sheesh, come on, guys. Let it go. It's like saying that it's hard to eat anything but hot dogs in America.
But these are difficult images to swat down, just like the images of Japan I had when I first visited--Mt. Fuji, shrines, being one with nature. Hah. On the Limousine Bus ride from Narita to Ikebukuro my first evening in Japan, what I saw out the bus window was not what I expected. Neon. Lots and lots of neon. Pachinko parlors, yes, but lots of other stuff too. It felt like Las Vegas, but not in English as much. The following morning, as I was at the age of 19 less prone to jet lag, I got up early and walked around the neighborhood of the Sunshine City building and ran into other stuff I didn't expect. A wedge area cut out of a corner building, empty flat concrete where space was at a premium. It wasn't until I looked up that I saw the hoses for pumping gas hanging from the ceiling and realized I was standing in a gas station closed in the morning. Then I found a vending machine on the street which I could not figure out, selling three different types of flat square boxes, about three inches square by half an inch thick, each a different color. I stared intently at the boxes in the machine for several minutes, trying to work out the nature of the products from the little katakana and hiragana I could make out, until I realized that I had spent several minutes staring at a condom vending machine.
That's the kind of experience you have when you wander into a completely new context. You can't figure things out at first. The first time I stayed in a Japanese home and had to go to the bathroom, I spent a few minutes trying to figure out where the light switch was. I looked all around inside the small half-bathroom after not finding the switch at hand-level on the inside wall on right side of the door, where the switch is supposed to be. It was dark in there, so I just figured that I missed it somehow, until a host family member showed me the light switch panel outside the bathroom.
So a lot of stuff is unexpected, but more importantly, a lot of the strange stuff you do expect is not really there as much as you think it will be. It's not all raw fish. But it most certainly is not home when you first get here, either. You find that out quickly enough when you try to find things that you've become used to most of your life.
On my first trip to Japan, I stopped by a McDonald's and ordered a medium root beer (they still served it at McD's in the U.S. then), only to be told that they did not serve alcohol. I had to explain, and still the girl behind the counter did not understand. My mistake. Just like most westerners come to Japan find they cannot stomach natto and umeboshi, most Japanese cannot stand the tastes of licorice or root beer, and both are very hard to find here.
There are a lot of things that you come to miss. Chocolate is different here. Japanese chocolate, that is; it tends to be less sweet or rich, and sometimes more waxy. And remember, back in the 80's, stores carried far, far fewer imported goods or foreign brands than they do today. Hell, you can even get boxes of After Eight mints in supermarkets now. That's not the Way It Was. And having a sweet tooth, I was in trouble, since what passed for "sweet" in Japan was not what I had in mind. Consider that you are reading the words of a See's Candy addict, and if you don't know See's, I feel sorry for you. Mmmmmmmmm. Seeeeee's. [insert sound of Homer Simpson drooling here] Decadent. Godiva? Give me a break. It's not the same thing. But See's is way too sweet for many Japanese. Should I try the local color? I'm sorry, but I just can't get into sweet bean paste.
Other things were different or missing. Like breakfast cereal. No Cap'n Crunch, that's for sure. Corn flakes have been here for a while, and recently they've gone wild and added even Fruit Loops to the store shelves (those nutty guys), but for a long time it was flakes or nothing. And the milk tastes strange too, even if you can find the rarely-sold skim variety. So what can you have instead? Vegetables. Come again? For breakfast? The first trip I came here I had a one-day homestay in Okayama and was served Okra with natto sauce. It looked like someone sneezed on a skimpy salad. Yech. Vegetables and soup just didn't go with breakfast for me. You could get toast, if you liked it sliced two inches thick. I'm not kidding.
Things have changed. More of what I missed is available now. Many of the candy bars being sold now are more to my liking, much to the detriment of my health. I mean, you can get white-chocolate Kit-Kat bars with maple syrup flavor now. That would have sent many Japanese of 20 years ago into diabetic shock. And the more-meat, more-bread, more-sugar diet is changing the shape of people. When I first came to Japan, I could stand on a crowded train and see clearly in every direction. Not so today. In 1983, in a small tourist town, some young ladies' toy airplane had landed on a roof awning, and a local store clerk was madly jumping up and down, arms stretched up high, not even reaching the awning; I came up and simply plucked the toy plane down without even reaching up too high. And I'm five foot ten. And a half. Today, my view is blocked in crowded places, even with that extra half inch working for me. And while Japanese people are still thin enough to make me feel fat (in contrast, when I visited Wisconsin, I felt downright skinny), Japanese people today, in general, are larger in girth as well as height.
I'm okay with it. Seriously, we're talking white chocolate with maple syrup here. Mmmmmmmm.
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