Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Japanese and English Cuisine

All this nonsense talk of micro-aggressions and flyjins that hovers about the Internet is nothing but a shallow distraction, a bit of rubbish that shifts attention from the truly awful, the god honest hatred for one thing that runs through Japanese society.

I encounter the disdain, the condescending smile, the knowing looks and pitying glances often in my working life. The respect I’m usually afforded as a teacher despite my few years is replaced by a little chuckle and my immediate relegation from senior or equal figure to foolish foreigner, ignorant visitor to these lands.

I try to laugh it off. I dismiss it as ignorance and not to be taken seriously. In my line of work you really ought to believe that you can educate individuals away from such unworldly views.

Yet, it’s no use. This is a nation reared on a televisual journey through the hinterlands of travel and haute cuisine. Every evening, nay every moment of the day that the TV illuminates the corner of the apartment it acts like some neon kami (Japanese for god), a tiny bacchanalian Buddha and pretentious prophet all rolled into one as it dispenses its unquestionable wisdom to the masses.

And what does it teach this culinary cult, these devotees of sofa-based exploration?

That not only is Japan the home of the world’s greatest cuisine but that it finds its perfect antithesis in where I call home; England.

Perhaps the humble fish and chips, or fishuandochipusu as it’s known here, is an exception to this rule such is its place on so many bar menus but the rest of my home nations culinary output might as well be poured down the drain the moment we’ve finished over cooking it.

My tongue now having thoroughly bore its way through my cheek I really ought to discuss where this seemingly globally accepted view actually comes from.

While the TV may be the purveyor of the accepted wisdom, it undoubtedly is entrenched enough now that very little could change Japanese minds.  It’s out there, as true to the Japanese as the strike happy, surrender quickly nature of the French is to the English. We don’t always believe it is true, but we certainly enjoy acting like it is.

However, in my opinion, away from Japanese TV there is a simpler geographical reason for this perspective.

Train stations.

Train stations in Japan are the epicenter. They are at the heart of the city. Everything emanates from that point and the better a thing is, the more likely it is to be on the doorstep of the station.

In Kyoto station there is an entire floor devoted to the art of Ramen. Beneath almost every major city station in Japan there seems to be a food court. Walk out of any train station in Japan (except for seriously countryside places) and you will almost certainly discover a decent number of rather good restaurants right in front of you.

Compare that to the train station in London I used to live nearby, Paddington and the contrasts are pretty stark. Directly opposite the main entrance at the crossroads by the Hilton Hotel sits the following; a Burger King, a KFC, a McDonalds, a Garfunkel’s and an Aberdeen Steak House.

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with fast food, it does exactly what it says on the tin, if you can’t hold back from the desire to stuff your face with it well that’s your issue, but fine dining it is not. Two minutes past this cavalcade of calorific confidence men sit yet another crappy steak restaurant and two ‘traditional’ English pubs. These pubs however are no fair reflection of British or English cuisine anymore than Kappa Sushi ought to be considered Kaiseki Ryori in Japan (as goodandbadjapan recently noted on his blog – always a wonderful read).

Yet, if you venture a further two minutes down that very same street you’ll come across The Victoria Pub. It’s a beautiful place, has genuinely good food and an ambiance that Hub Pub’s across Tokyo would kill to replicate. Around the corner from that is the Mitre, yet another fine example of a good English Pub. That both happened to be my locals for a short time in my life is something I will always be grateful for.

In reality if anything in England might find its antithesis in Japan it certainly isn’t food, it’s urban planning.

Unfortunately the simple hint, walk five minutes more, isn’t in any guidobuku I’ve ever seen. However, I’ve been correcting this one globetrotting student at a time and bit by bit I think it’s starting to work.

All this is really just my way of saying, if you work in either of the lovely pubs I just mentioned and have been very politely, if quite forcefully cajoled into posing for photographs with some very nice Japanese ladies thoroughly enjoying their holidays, then thank you. You have by plate and by pint managed what I never could; you got them to disagree with the TV.

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Supermarket Pac-Man

She shot off like a flash, a whirring of stiffly lurching arms, frog marching, goose steppingly absurd helpfulness. A gust of misdirected efficiency whipping through the aisles of the store, drawn round bends by a microclimate of hurrying and scurrying staff members. Each one weaving around customers and obstacles alike at a pace that can best be described as akin to the one achieved when crossing the road as the green man begins to flash.

Welcome to the world of Japanese shopping. Not the crazy, department store sale shopping. I stay well clear of that. No this is the day to day garden variety where a simple request like, ‘Do you sell light bulbs?’ Can result in the transformation of an overly starched store clerk into a passable imitation of Road Runner. Off she shoots like a bolt of lightening, mostly because I’m never quite sure where they might strike.

There’s an element of Greek tragedy to it I suppose. If Zeus almighty, or in this case, a store manager, is directing said lightening bolt (or if they actually know where something is) then my misadventures as Wiley Coyote will draw to an all too early finish. But if not, then I enter the world of supermarket Pac-Man.

Well Pac-Man when he’s swallowed that pill thing and the whole screen starts to flash and the ghosts turn on the tail end of their sheets and scarper.

The magic pill in this case being, ‘I have a question.’

The first time I asked for help in a small town department store I was just looking for a light bulb. You see, upon entering my first apartment in Japan and flicking on the light switches two bulbs decided that the unexpected shock to their systems was clearly beyond the pale and subsequently blinked out of existence with a whimper. As signs go it perhaps didn’t auger too well for me.

Eventually after growing tired of living in the gloom, by which I mean my dimly lit apartment not England in general, I ventured out into a department store armed with a scrap of Japanese and attempted to track down a light bulb. Not finding it in plain sight I asked a store clerk where it was. A brief exchange of haphazard cross-cultural pointing and signing over and she was off, a blur into the distance.

It was at this point that I realized just how many things we never even consider in our day-to-day lives. For example, when the shop attendant helping you with your inquiry darts off like a greyhound in heat what exactly is the appropriate distance to maintain in your pursuit?

Are you supposed to jog along with her?

Is nonchalantly strolling behind going to result in you losing her?

Are you supposed to stay put until she eventual returns with the item you were after and drops it straight into your basket like a loyal labradoodle?

Will losing her result in this kind woman, in a fit of helpfully nervous panic, sending out an all channels bulletin across the store intercom imploring everyone in the store that if they see a lost and confused looking strange young foreign man to please escort him to the electrical appliances aisle?

It turns out that I needn’t have worried. Just like in Pac-Man when the magic, trippy pill thing wears off they inevitably track you down. Sometimes you win and they drop you exactly next to the item you need, other times you lose and they, ‘eto, ano…chotto’ (ahhh, ummm…well) and send you packing back to the Game Over screen.

One thing though; I’ve been here for over two years now. The mishaps, the confusion have all but disappeared so why has this image stuck with me?

Well, because… I can’t help but wonder… if I ask the store clerks one after another, asking the next just as the previous one zips off into the distance, could I complete the Supermarket-Deluxe-Department-Store-Challenge-JAPAN edition of Pac-Man? Or will I just crash the damn machine?

One day…