In July 1997 I arrived in the small coastal town of Kogushi (which translates as “little stick”) to teach English as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. This is the fourth in a series of posts about my three years in Kogushi.
Food is an art form in Japan. Like many traditional arts and practices in Japan, such as the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, calligraphy, food presentation and consumption can be highly formalized, governed by centuries-old techniques and ritual. Traditional Japanese meals focus on awakening all five senses; it is not just how the food tastes or smells – though the combinations of tastes like savory and sour, sweet and bitter, seem heightened – but also its texture, sound, and appearance is also important. Is the food warm or cold? Is it smooth or chewy? Is it served in a smooth ceramic bowl and eaten with freshly broken wooden chopsticks? As you chew, does the crunch reverberate? Do you smack your lips in appreciation? What are the plays of color of the different foods and the plateware in different sizes and shapes on which it is served?
I grew up eating a combination of home cooked American comfort foods and packaged convenience foods. Macaroni and cheese. Pork chop casserole. Baked chicken and mashed potatoes. Beef Pasta a lá Hamburger Helper and Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. Our plateware was nothing special and the drinkware a mismatch of plastic and glass, some from yard sales, some from various fast food restaurant promotions. I found the Japanese way of food difficult to grasp.
A few months after arriving in Japan I wrote this little story for myself, called “The Uslurper.”
One day I was working away at my desk. Because it was lunch time, I expected to have a bit of peace and quiet while I worked. Even though most teachers eat their lunch at school, it was a testing period so there were few teachers around. I set about coloring. Then, I heard it. SLURP! The teacher who sat cater-cornered from me, a small, wiry man with whispy white hair, bushy eyebrows, age spots on his face, took a sip from his tea cup I eyed him wearily and went back to work. SLURP. SLURP. Again! I tried to shake off the feeling that was coming over me. Then, he got out his bento box. SLURP. SLURP. SMACK. SMACK. SLURP. SMACK. The hair on the back of my head stood up. SMACK. SLURP. CRUNCH. CRUNCH. SLURP. SLURP. SMACK. CRUNCH. I could feel my nerves tensing for the next onslaught. SMACK. SMACK. Argh! When would it end? My hands clenched. My lips pursued. My shoulders bunched up around my head. I did not know if I could control myself. I wanted to march over and snatch his chopsticks away and snap them in half.
SMACK. SMACK. SMACK. CRUNCH. CRUNCH. CRUNCH. SLURP. SLURP. SLURP. SMACK. CRUNCH. SLURP. I could not work anymore. I looked over and saw him get up and throw away his trash and then move to the sink to rinse out his lunch box. He put away his chopsticks carefully in their case. Thank goodness, it was over! I let out a sigh of relief. I relaxed. He sat down, and in signify a very satisfying meal he let out a loud BELCH and then two more sips, SLURP, SLURP. Then, at last, he was done.
This seemed emblematic to me of the cultural differences associated with food and eating between the U.S. and Japan. In one we are taught to be quiet when chewing our food, to apologize for noise; in the other, the noises of chewing and crunching and belching showed an appreciation for both the food and the audible parts of the eating experience.
I am also, I will admit it, not a particularly adventurous eater. As mentioned before, I grew up on a particular set of American staples, and I rarely strayed from it as a child and only branched out some as a young adult. And here I was in Japan where fish, that I never ate, is a staple and pickled octopus is served on sticks and packed in plastic containers like sweets next to the cash register. Therefore, in my introductory letter to my new school, sent a few weeks before arrival, I told them I was a vegetarian. I didn’t want loads of questions about the limited meat I consumed, so I just took meat out of the equation.
Or so I thought.
Turned out that many people I met just did not know what to do with this information. It seems rather unbelievable, but for a country that embraces Buddhism and has at least a stereotype of embracing nature (because at the same time they are one of the few countries in the world to still hunt whales and eat them) many Japanese could not wrap their head around vegetarianism.
Just a week or so after classes started at the high school in Kogushi, teachers from my school were out and about and we stopped for lunch at a small noodle shop. Like many small shops like this, the menu was all on wooden blocks in Japanese and I knew only a few basic phrases I had learned in six weeks of night classes at a community college in Miami before accepting the job, certainly not enough to figure out the menu or say much of anything. The same older teacher who had been to pick me up at the airport when I arrived at the Yamaguchi-Ube Airport about a month before, the guy who had stood languidly against the wall and showed zero excitement at my arrival, he said he would order for me. I reminded him that I did not eat meat. He said he remembered.
Imagine my surprise as I am eating and I distinctly taste fish. I ask him, “X sensei, is there fish in this dish?” He says no. I taste it again. I most certainly tastes of fish. I ask him again and he gives me an annoyed look, like one might give a child that has asked for something umpteen times, and again says no. I tell him I am sure there is fish in the soup. He looks at me again and says, “you can’t taste it.” Meaning, there IS fish in the soup. And yes, I absolutely could taste it! How presumptuous that he ordered for me and ordered something he knew I had specifically asked not to eat.
While I expect that teacher in part did it to be cheeky, this was just the first of many odd encounters I had regarding meat in Japan.
On another occasion, a few months after arrival, a family in Kogushi invited me, the exotic blonde American English teacher, to dinner. When they heard I did not eat meat they asked me to make a list of all the things that I did eat… This seemed to be quite a long list compared to the one I didn’t (i.e. meat), but I obliged: spaghetti (without meat), pizza (without meat), curry (without meat), ramen (without meat), tempura (vegetables only), etc, etc.
There was one day when I was at the hospital school where I taught a few classes every other Tuesday. The teachers asked if I might stay for lunch. I asked what they were having and if it had any meat. They went to check. Upon their return they told me that it would be Japanese curry…and that although it had meat in it, it was chopped into small pieces. I failed to see the difference, but it made them happy to report it. And the karate group I joined that seemed to want to influence more than one’s martial art skills, they tried to sneak some little fish into my food. When I pointed out that I saw the small black eyes of the shirasu (しらす), small white parboiled baby sardines, in my rice (i.e. I was wise to their attempts), they shrugged it off, noting, again, their small size. Little meat is apparently just like no meat at all.
Overtime I let good friends in on my secret, that I actually did eat meat on occasion, I just was rather particular about it. In my own time I tried foods on my own and came to have my favorites. One was a wonderful meal of meat and vegetables heated in a stock enjoyed during the winter months called nabe. Introduced to me by my Yutama adult English class, I associated the steamy pots of food then dipped in a sauce of ponzu (a concoction of soy sauce, rice vinegar, rice wine, and citrus juice) and grated daikon (pickled Japanese radish) with gatherings of good friends. I also came to enjoy the Japanese traditional breakfast of rice, miso soup, pickled cucumbers and radish, and a block of chilled silken tofu with green onions and soy sauce (though I left off the fish flakes). Tempura also became a favorite. My favorite tempura being shrimp (shhhh…shrimp is the only seafood I eat) and pumpkin, which seemed a specialty of the restaurants in Kawatana, the town one over from Kogushi. In fact, Kawatana was also famous for being the birthplace of a special dish called kawara soba. Soba are buckwheat noodles a bit thicker than spaghetti. In Kawatana they used cha soba which are the soba also made with tea, giving them a bright green color, and cooked them, along with ingredients like shredded fried egg and meat, atop a kawara, or roof tile. The ubiquitous curved tiles found in Japanese villages are made of clay and hold heat well and the dish is served still sizzling at one’s table. I was not a major fan of kawara soba, but I did enjoy it on the occasional special meal with friends, in the restaurant where it was invented. My favorite Japanese dessert was mochi, a sweet made of glutinous rice with added flavorings or stuffings like red bean paste and then shaped into little decorative balls. Mochi was like ultimate celebration food, traditionally served at holidays like Children’s Day or New Year’s and also often served during the tea ceremony. The sweet mochi perfectly cut the bitterness of the matcha tea.
I am still not an adventurous eater (many persons express great surprise I survived three years in Japan and do not eat fish), but my time in Japan introduced me to a whole new world of tastes and the pleasure derived from consuming good food. I still cannot stand the sound of slurping though.