Thursday, December 21, 2006

Eating in Japan...

MSN ran a story a few months back about what toddlers eat around the world. I thought I'd share the info about Japan:


The Japanese enjoy the world's longest average life spans, and a big reason for that may be the food they eat starting from a very young age. Rice is the centerpiece of a common toddler meal. All other foods -- fish, meat, vegetables -- are side items intended to enhance the flavor of the rice. A typical toddler lunch is egg-flavored rice with broiled fish or seafood (more popular than meat due to the island's access to water), a side dish of lightly cooked seasonal vegetables, and soup with tofu (commonly known as miso).

Other Favorites: Noodles -- soba (buckwheat) and udon (wheat flour) served in a soy-flavored fish broth with vegetables; tofu with veggies; Bento, a boxed meal of rice, pickled veggies; and other side dishes.

Sweet Tooth Satisfiers: Kimi balls are egg-flavored, rice flour-based sugary treats that literally melt in your mouth.

That's pretty good general info. We can go into more detail, though.

One thing that's not mentioned here is natto. As a foreigner living in Japan, you'll be asked, "Can you eat natto?" It's almost always asked that way and only rarely, "Have you tried natto?"

You'll be asked this often, maybe even once a day over particularly curious stretches.

Natto is a breakfast food that consists of fermented soybeans. They're a bit sticky and have a fairly neutral taste. Supposedly, their strong aroma is a deterrent for most gaijin, but I have a very weak sense of smell so that's no problem for me.

Back in November 2005, I went to an izakaya with some Japanese friends and of course, these cute girls asked if I could eat natto.

"I have never tried natto," I replied. "But I would like to."

So they ordered it for me, giggling all the while. When it came, my friend pushed the bowl in front of me and said, "Showtime!"

I discovered that not only could I eat natto, I also didn't mind eating natto. It's not my favorite meal by any means but now I have a neat li'l trick I can play on the people I meet in Japan that will amuse and delight us all.

Bento are pretty cool. Bento are lunchboxes that look more like gift boxes, with neat little compartments where you can see what food you're getting. I only bought a freshly-made bento from a small restaurant one time, and it had a piece of salmon in it along with the rice and pickled vegetables... plus, it was delicious and fun to eat.

I actually ate it in a secret spot at Zaza City. The few people who saw me probably thought, "Another weirdo foreigner. At least this one likes good food."

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Someone's home-packed bento... I think!

At the beginning of the delightful 2004 comedy film Swing Girls, Tomoko and her classmates are bored with their droning summer session math teacher, so they volunteer to carry bento to the school's band, who are playing at the high school championship baseball tournament in another city.

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A store-bought bento.

Being irresponsible, the girls not only eat one of the bento, they also fall asleep and miss their stop. They backtrack on foot across the hot, humid countryside... which causes the remaining bento to spoil in the heat. Which sets off an outbreak of vomiting and explosive diarrhea at the baseball game, leading to the rest of the story where they learn to play instruments and love big band jazz.

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"We challenge you to express the spirit
of youth and ruin bento! It's fun!"

At most train stations you can find shops selling stacks and stacks of neatly packed bento. It's actually one of my favorite sights in Japan, something that to me is uniquely Japanese.

But don't underestimate the popularity of American-style fast food in Japan. McDonald's is everywhere, and to a lesser extent so are Wendy's and Subway. McDonald's in particular is highly popular.

I'll always remember the time I was waiting to teach my Saturday morning kid's class and the smallest of the children came in and hopped up on the stage under the window and began excitedly pointing outside.

"Joel! Joel! Joel!" she shouted. "Makudonurado! Watashi wa duburu chiisubaga wo tabetai!"

Not sure of the particles but that's how I remember it now.

Another McDonald's piece of trivia- because space is limited in Japan in general and urban centers specifically, many of the McDonald's are 2-stories, with upstairs eating areas. Around lunchtime you can find a table of high school girls eating fries and scarfing down burgers and then... putting on makeup.

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"Enjoy a very sensual meal at McDonald's." Japanese
McDonald's are a bit more stylish than our American variety.

And putting on makeup. And putting on makeup. They pull out little mirrors and compacts and all sorts of stainless steel devices to curl their lashes and transform themselves into whatever J-Pop ideal of perfection is the current style and it takes approximately forever.

No lunch is complete without this lengthy and elaborate beautification ritual. I don't even think they do it for others, or for their boyfriends or classmates particularly. The rest of the world goes completely away and all reality consists of the face in the mirror, so it seems very self-absorbed. Their concentration is extreme and their movements precise.

That gives me this weird feeling they do it strictly for themselves.

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