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Sunday, April 22, 2012

How To Read Japanese Food Labels

Shopping for food in Japan can be quite a daunting task. Below is an adventure of mine from when I first arrived. All I can say is that when I arrived back in 1990, I sure wish:
  1. the Surviving Japan website had been around; 
  2. and that the Internet was around.  
Check out, a very interesting blog, to say the least. If you are a newcomer to the country, this blog may just have a few helpful hints on how to get by!

The blog I am telling you all to check out, can be found down at the end of this blog. It looks to be super handy and would have made my life that much easier to handle - for example, when shopping at the Iseya super store in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken, Japan, I was looking for some milk for my cereal.

Just like Toronto, things weren't stacked in places as you would expect them to be. I had only been in Japan for about a week and I had already run out of the stocked fridge that my office, the OBOE (Ohtawara Board of Education), had left for me.

I ventured out of my safe abode and out into the streets of Ohtawara armed only with my wallet full of Japanese money I had brought with me (I hadn't been paid, as I hadn't yet done anything), and my trusty bicycle that had been delivered to me the day before - big blue, I called it - a monstrously tall 18-speed bike - that no other Japanese person had ever owned. It was cobbled together from various bikes in town (fortunately there were several hundred bicycle shops in Ohtawara) and built so my long legs could adequately pump the pedals. It was far better than the red 1-speed I had earlier that was the mode of locomotion for my predecessor, a short Indian woman from England named Cheryl Menezes. All indications are she was well-liked and cute, and there was no way in hell I could ride that miniature bike she had. It, besides the size, was just too... girly.

Anyhow... I unlocked my bicycle (few others in the bike lot of my building were locked) and rode out without a shred of confidence to the supermarket.

I arrived there 20 minutes later after getting lost twice and was relieved to find it was only three minutes away from my apartment.

I locked up the bike (again, few others were locked), pushed open the doors to the place, grabbed a plastic green basket and looked about the place.

To be sure I received quite a few stares from the locals who had perhaps heard I was newly arrived in town, and thus this was their first glimpse of me... but since it was a grocery store, it was only women staring, and to be honest, I didn't mind one bit.

They stared, I smiled back. So did they, and everyone went about there shopping. The only uncomfortable feeling I had was that I was shopping in a small-city grocery store where I was afraid all of the products were in a different language. I was not disappointed. 

To be sure, it was the most daunting thing I have ever had to do... and it remained that way for quite sometime until I became comfortable with the products - and their relative cost.

The first thing I needed was cereal. I found the cereal aisle, and lo and behold - Kelloggs Frosted Flakes was in plain sight. I grabbed that piece of home and placed it into the basket. Next, milk for the cereal. I know that milk comes in at least three different containers. Bags of three one-liter pouches; cartons of various sizes; and jugs. I saw no bags or jugs (and I was staring intently at the female shoppers - yeah, I know what I wrote), but there at the end of an aisle sitting in an open refrigerated section... I saw some cartons.
I glanced at it saw the line drawn image of chat looked like chocolate milk being poured into a glass and figured - what the heck! Chocolate milk and cereal! Sounds delicious!

I bought a few more items - including some ground beef for hamburgers, eggs, bacon, cans of baked beans - where the hell was I again? This is Japan? I thought there would be some weird foods ONLY. Yeah - there were a plethora of things I had no clue as to what they were - so I stayed away from those and only picked up products that I was sure about.

I already knew I liked Japanese food. I had eaten it for the very first time two days before I left Toronto, Canada to come here... and had eaten some yakitori (skewered chicken barbequed over a hot flame) at the Obon street festival (Obon is the festival of the Dead), and had sake (Japanese rice wine) for the first time a day or tw ago (I really like that!). Squid (ika), octopus (takko), sembei (rice crackers)... I could eat anything this country could toss at me, I thought (in truth I really could) - but to purchase it and cook it? Man... I could barely microwave a hotdog back home.   
I have no idea what the fug this is, but it almost looked like real kanji and the actual food name under it in English. It's not, so even here, in this blog, you can get fooled by a picture.

Experimentation could come later.

So... I got back home, cracked open the Frosted Flakes, opened and formed the spout on the milk and poured it into my full bowl of cereal.

Now... I may not know a lot of things - at least not back in 1990 when this all occurred), but I do know what chocolate milk is supposed to look like. This stuff was dark like chocolate milk, but it was still the wrong color. And the consistency - it was like water as it sploshed all over my tasty flakes. What the hell was this liquid.

Had it gone bad? Ewwww. I stared at the package again... hmmm, the image on it actually matched the color of the product I had poured out... what the hell was it.

Well... when in Tokyo, do as the Tokyo-ites do... of course, I wasn't in Tokyo... I was 100 kilometers north of it... and I had no idea if people in Tokyo actual ever tried to eat Frosted Flakes with chocolate milk - or whatever the hell this liquid was... but... I'll be damned if I waste food!

I picked up my spoon and got some of the brown, clear liquid and raised it to my lips, closed my ideas, said 'what the hell' to no one in particular and prayed they would find my body before I died... and tasted it.

Hmmm... not bad... but it sure as heck wasn't milk, though.... I tried it again... was that?... yes... I think so... it's brown tea!

Who the hell puts brown tea in a waxed paperboard carton like that? Who drinks cold tea? Apparently I do! And it was tasty on my cereal, too.


I actually had to throw out my bowl of Frosted Flakes... and placed the tea back into the fridge knowing I would never drink tea like this again. Hot and brewed by myself? Yes! Cold from a carton? Never!
I mean, dammit, I've had for the past few days cups of tea I made myself from the three tins of Twinning's left behind by Cheryl. I said she was from England, right? Orange Pekoe, Darjeleeng, Prince of Wales. Yum.

I sat down, poured a fresh bowl of Frosted Flakes and ate them dry. I might sully them with chocolate milk, but there was no way I was going to eat  them with tea from a carton.

Japan... what have I got myself into? Did I really buy ground beef? It looks like it, but now I'm not so sure! It's like playing Russian Roulette!  

Anyhow... I don't want this to ever happen to you, should you decide to live in Japan for a while.  

So... without further ado, here's a link to Surviving Japan, and their ultimate guide to reading food labels.

It still involves you knowing Japanese, but I would suggest you carefully copy down the Japanese words (not the Japanese words written in English), and then see if you can find the foods you really are looking for. 


Anyhow.. I have since discovered that my chocolate milk/brown tea was really something called Mugicha, which is a barley tea. I suppose it's good for you, but it did not fit my definition of a tasty drink to a tee. Sorry.

I'm sure it's tasty... but when you expect water and get vodka, you spit it out - even if you love vodka... it's like your brain is conditioned to expect a certain taste and anything but - poison!

Oh... and that photo at the very top... that's a can of whale meat. How the hell would you know? I'm sure it's tasty and all that, but it might not be what you are after...
Good luck and bon appétite,
Andrew Joseph

1 comment:

  1. Amazing guide this is to learn How to Read Japanese food labels! Thanks for sharing!