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.

Posted by Luis at October 6, 2005 11:28 PM

What is your long term plan?

Posted by: ykw at October 7, 2005 03:45 AM

"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."

This is probably the most profound statement I've come across in recent weeks about moving to a foreign country! And I feel particularly spoiled in getting here recently, as there are still "comforts of home" especially with access to U.S. style products on a military base (read: lots of chocolate, even Godiva -- although its wildly overrated). I'm still going through culture shock and vacillating between wide-eyed wonder and a been-there-done-that mentality -- but I'm afraid of completely losing that feeling of having "new eyes" for a place.

Reading your anniversary posts reminded me that it's still possible to look at a world you've been in with affection and amazement!

Posted by: ReyLynda at October 7, 2005 09:31 AM

Oh come now. Not everyone in Wisconsin is fat. I mean, well, ok. Yeah. I see more chubby people on average than I do twiggy people. ;)

Posted by: windy at October 8, 2005 01:10 AM

I visited Japan in 1986, was on a crowded street w/ approx 200 people in view, noticed there was something unique about the view, and then realized that not one person was overweight. The difference between Japan and Usa average belly is huge. Also, in France, for example, few are overweight. The Americans are the ones w/ the big bellies.

Posted by: ykw at October 8, 2005 03:20 AM

That is, I presume, due to the fact that most Americans are used to driving everywhere, consuming large meals and sitting on their asses.

When I was in Germany for 4 weeks in 1995, I came home about 25 pounds lighter, and I wasn't even terribly overweight. I had never had to walk so much ever and I played sports regularly in school too. But in Germany I had to walk 39 steps up/down 3 flights of stairs to get to my room several times a day. Walk a mile or more to train station. Walk to school from the station. Walk to get to a friends. Walk to get to the corner shop. I was only on busses and trains to get to my next spot for more walking. I needed new shoes when I got home!

If you take select cities in America where crowding is obvious and the only cars on the street are taxi's, you will notice the shape of people to be more on the trim and toned side. That would be due to all the walking around to get from place to place.

I notice quite a difference in Milwaukee vs Chicago for example. Two cities which I visit quite often. I'm not sure if it's all the beer, cheese and brats that Wisconsin is known for, but on average, Chicago residents are thinner than Milwaukee residents.

Posted by: windy at October 8, 2005 07:35 AM

royal milk tea.

12-flavor extra large pocky.

green tea flavored haagen-dazs ice cream.

that is all.

Posted by: kei and yuri at October 10, 2005 08:21 AM

Two years later and I have to say this post is so beautiful.
I found it while searching for "Japanese milk tastes weird" to validate that sentiment. I'm also looking for WHY. Perhaps the Japanese irradiate milk and the rest of us pasteurize it--I don't know.

The light switches, the candy, the milk, the "bread," are all so accurate. I've only come to Japan twice for the summer but I've shared these unique experiences and then some.

I've been telling people "Japan is entirely unlike the Western World and it is entirely unlike the Western World's stereotype of Japan." People are always disappointed that there aren't temples and ninjas everywhere. They're disappointed that Japanese bread is more outrageous than sashimi. Unless you've been here, it's hard to really understand what it is.

It's not all those video clips on youtube or those movies. Japan just is what it is. I don't want to live here nor do I want to leave.

It disappoints me that familiar American restaurants open up here but serve entirely different menus and completely omit their signature meals. KFC without mashed potatoes? McShrimp burgers? Hayashi rice and chop sticks at Denny's?

Reaching for the familiar and not finding it is so disappointing. Imagine you finally bought a food you were really craving and when you bit into it it tasted completely different.

If I don't pretend that it's milk, I can drink the Japanese version. But if I imagine that it's milk as I pour it into my $4 tissue-box sized favorite bowl of cereal, it just makes the baby Jesus want to cry.

Posted by: Rick R. at August 21, 2007 07:56 AM