Around the World in 80 Days: Day 55, Japan and Food

I’ve written about food a lot, I know.  I kinda like food.  Japan has many wonderful food offerings but there’s definitely a dark side to food where Japan is concerned.  I’m not sure what’s going on so I’m going to try to analyze some of the things I found aggravating.

First, if you ever come to Japan, don’t do what I did and wait until the last day to go to the basement of a department store.  I had been told that this was the best place to get stuff like tea and cookies and the like, but I’d never imagined I’d find a wonderland of food market after food market after food market covering an area that seemed as large as any Walmart.  You know that part in the Matrix where Neo needs guns and magically the whole room becomes filled with guns?  It’s like that but with food, lots of food.  I’m not even exaggerating.

Anything and everything fried in tempura batter.

Onigiri.

No idea, but I’d totally eat it.

Also no idea. Beautiful though.

More fried stuff.  Doesn’t it look amazing?

I just… couldn’t eat everything, you know?  I wanted to.  Man I wanted to, but what you are looking at is basically all the things I would never get to eat.  It was only consumed by my eyes and my mind.  Please take a moment of silence to remember all of this amazing food, sitting there, unpurchased and uneaten by yours truly.  (Jeff, you can play taps on your trumpet if you want.)

Sweets.

Ok so, I love Japan for all of it weirdness, rituals, politeness, cheeriness, cuteness, honor, respectfulness, stylishness, cleanliness, and symbolism.  While all of these things are very positive attributes, sometimes there’s a price to pay for a society to function with such high standards.  There are very few overweight people in Japan and if you do come across an overweight person they’re most likely a sumo wrestler.  You get so used to seeing these fit, trim people that seeing a sumo wrestler is a bit of a shock.  (And I did see some. It was cool.)  I don’t really consider myself overweight (size 10/12) but there was nothing that would fit me here.  I am definitely taller and curvier than the average Japanese woman.  There is societal pressure here to stay thin.

Princess cakes.

Right.  So my observations about things that aggravated me all seem to be tied to food.  Perhaps I should start off with my thesis statement that I plan to prove through my writing:

Japanese people don’t actually eat stuff.

Two of the things that I researched before I came to Japan illustrate my point.

Thing 1 – There are no public trashcans.  I bought an extra large and annoying purse to carry around all of the trash I thought I’d be carrying.  Well, it turns out that you don’t tear open the box containing the new desktop computer you just bought on your way home, though my purse totally could have handled it.  My giant purse had it’s own special bag inside to store all of the trash I thought I’d be carting around.  You know what I put in there?  My discarded gum wrapped in post-it notes.  So what do you normally throw away in public trachcans?  Food.  Food containers.  Drink bottles.  This is actually ties to the other thing I had prepared for…

Thing 2 – Japanese people don’t eat things when they walk.  They frown upon this.  The bright side though is that they like to stop and sit in a park to eat.  It’s a nice way to enjoy the nature around you and slow down.  (If anyone needs to slow TF down it’s the Japanese.)  This would be awesome if there were a park every 3 blocks and the weather was always perfect.  You know what’s missing in parks though?  Trashcans.  And it becomes even more problematic when…

Thing 3 – There are no places to sit to eat.  I found this out in the department store food wonderland.  I would like to personally invite all Japanese department store basement designers to America to gaze in wonder upon our food courts.  Enough tables and chairs to accommodate an army of mouths and stomachs.  And the crazy thing here is that they’re right next to all of the places where a person would purchase food.  Oh hey look!  Here’s a trashcan!  I also feel no need to eat while I walk to my table!  So many problems solved in one place!

I bought these sweets at one of the shops and asked the adorable Japanese person who helped me where I could sit to eat it.  She looked confused and asked her co-worker if she knew of any place to sit.  She was having a hard time translating the correct word to tell me where, when she finally came up with “around” the escalators.  I went around to the other side of the escalators and there was no grand seating area.  I figured out that she actually meant around the escalators.  There were about 5 seats near the base of the escalators.  I chose one next to a guy reading a newspaper and he seemed generally put out with me.  All these “restaurants” with no places to sit!  Inconceivable!  In contrast, there were also restaurant floors with normal seating higher up in the building, but that completely disproves my thesis so we’ll have to strike this bit of information from the records.

Baked breads.

More sweets that would never make it into my body.

These sweets look a lot more like the kind of sweet you’d get at a Japanese tea ceremony.  (Oh yeah – I need to work on that post too…)

Let me tell you about my experience of trying to eat the salad bento I bought in the department store basement.  Bought.  Great.  Let’s walk to a park and eat it.  There’s an amazing park over here!  Let’s go!  (walking noises)  Man my legs hurt from all the crazy walking I’ve been doing in these worn out shoes.  Surely I’m doing permanent damage to my feet by continuing to walk on them when they hurt so bad.  Almost there.  Sweet!  Here’s the park!  I have to pay to get in?  No thanks.  Where’s the next park?  Ok that doesn’t look too far.  (walking noises)  My legs and feet are hurting and I just need to sit down but there’s no seating until that damned park.  I pass an alley and my thoughts turn dark.  Maybe I should just go down that alley and sit on the ground and do dirty, dirty things to this salad bento… like eat it.  Maybe with my hands.  No, the last thing I need is to be put in a Japanese prison.  I finally make it to the park and sit in between a woman on her phone and a passed out drunk man.  I didn’t know that there were any seedy neighborhoods in Tokyo, but leave it to me to find one.  Talking on your phone in public is one of the most vile offenses one can commit here.  “Lady!  This drunk man is trying to sleep,” I should have said, but calling someone out in public is also frowned upon.  I needed to get my forbidden eating done and then get out of here before I came across someone kissing their husband on the cheek or worse, hugging him.

Whew.  Need a cute cookie/cracker palate cleanser after that memory.

Didn’t get to eat these either.

Seriously, I love art on my food!

Thing 4 – Japanese napkins.  This thing they call a napkin is a very thin, slightly crisp, shiny, non-absorbent slip of paper that once was a tree.  You get handed a glass with silverware and/or chopsticks and maybe like 5 of these things.  I’ve never seen a Japanese person use one.  When opened they’re about 8×6 inches so they don’t really cover your lap very well either.  The idea of eating hot wings and using these napkins is tickling me right now.

So there we have it: No trashcans, no walking and eating yet no places to sit to eat, napkins that are clearly just for show, and the people in Japan are notoriously thin/small.  They don’t eat, at least not in any kind of public setting.  Not sure how restaurants stay in business.  Maybe they just cater to foreigners.  Still, Japanese people are thriving.  Perhaps they are actually subsisting on kawaii, or it might be that they eat at home in the dark, silently crying.  It’s a shame that they don’t get to enjoy their magnificent food more freely.

Love,

~S

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