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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Learning To Eat In Japan

I was the type of guy who had only ever eaten Japanese food once - the day before I left Toronto to teach English in Japan on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme.

I had heard all those rumors about raw fish... for the record, that's sashimi... NOT sushi.

I arrived in Japan, and after a couple of days in Tokyo for orientation, I was taken to my new home - a small, rural city called Ohtawara-shi in Tochigi-ken, about 100 kilometers or so north of Tokyo.

I couldn't find it on a map of Japan before leaving - this was pre-Internet days, by the way in 1990.

I had no idea what to expect, had no experience in cooking my own food, had zero experience in shopping for food or anything other than comic books...

I was a McDonalds kind of guy, who had previously relied on my mom or dad to cook my food or to buy it from the grocery stores.

I was, to put it simply, screwed.

I was shell-shocked upon arriving in Japan. I was quite literally afraid to go out and look around for fear of getting lost, and lacking any sort of Japanese language skills to enable me to get help in finding my way back.

The first time I tried to follow directions, I rode out on my bicycle to try and find my new American girlfriend's apartment some 20 minutes away, and ended up on a three-hour tour of Ohtawara City's many rice fields.

The clue was in the name, as Ohtawara translates into Big-Rice field-Field, and outside of its main downtown core, the suburbs consisting of rice fields were a mere three minutes in any direction.

Roads were (in the suburbs), small one-and-a-half car widths wide, and for a bicycle rider - even with some experience - were a bit daunting, what with the water-filled rice paddies alongside the pitted roadways.

After arriving, my bosses took my to a grocery store... and thanks to system overload of everything being new, I had no idea where I was driven and how it related to my home-base.

Yes, I had a large wall map, with somethings marked out in English by my thoughtful predecessor, but one still had to know how to read it properly to get an inkling of where one was and where one wanted to go... besides... the map was on my wall... I couldn't take it with me.

As such, after that initial drive to the grocery store (Iseya), where I loaded up on some groceries like milk, a bottle of Coke, cereal, some stupidly large Japanese apples (larger than a softball) and pears (also larger than a softball and round like one) that could each feed a family of four... I lived off all that for a few days. 

But aside from discovering the sake shop below my apartment where they also sold milk, Coke and potato chips and candy bars, I didn't eat real food for nearly two weeks... except when there was a welcome party for myself, at which point I learned that in order not to starve, I should each eat every bit of Japanese food put down in front of me.

That was how I came to love eating Japanese food. It was tasty because, despite what I had assumed, man can not live on Coke and chocolate bars alone.

That two-week period saw me lose around 10-pounds... which at that point of time in my life I couldn't afford to lose (I can afford to lose it now, of course).

It was at that time, thanks to visits from Ashley and Matthew - two other local assistant English teachers (Matthew lived somewhere near me in the city)... that I was able to get over my shyness (believe it or not!!!) and my fear of the whole situation, and discover where the heck a few things were.

Having a girlfriend - Ashley - who was 3+ years younger than me at around 21 - who seemed far more adept at picking up the Japanese language, and who had previously lived on her own and wasn't as afraid as I was initially of trying new things... well... I made sure to pay attention as she rode with me from my spacious three-bedroom L-D-K apartment to the grocery store and to other shops around the town.

It really was a town, more than a city.

There were two grocery stores... Ai-Ai Town was small and had all things food, but also prepared foods - the only thing I believe I ever bought from there, and Iseya, which lacked the prepared food offerings, but had everything else and a wider selection of food options... as well as a drycleaner, and a large retail section where you could buy clothes (never in my size or style), photography stuff, toys... it's like what Walmart later began to offer in their super-stores... just 15 years earlier.

With Ashley (and Matthew) coming over frequently, I quickly got out of my frightened comfort zone and thought I would try and cook something besides eggs and bacon and a can of beans (with a slab of pork, of course).

I wanted to show off to the girl, that I was more than the guy who was a virgin when we met... though I think most people assumed I was more than that - as I covered up my shyness by being funny, loud, and brash... but mostly in an attempt to be the life of the party.

So... even though I had never cooked before, had never read a cook book... there was something inside a corner of my brain that made me think I could cook a bowl of chili... so I bought what I thought all of the ingredients should be at Iseya (ground beef was and continues to be expensive, though not as expensive as steak - which I never ate while there unless it was a staple at some enkai (party).

I cooked chopped up the fresh ingredients, braised the ground beef - covering it in cinnamon... my cupboards came stocked with every damn spice I had ever heard off. While not a cook, and I don't think I am, stupid, I did know how to use most of the spices and herbs intuitively, though aside from rice, I have no idea how to use saffron... which I also had a small amount of packed in a wrapper and stuffed in a bottle.

While that initial chili was a bit weak for Ashley, who called me a wimp because I thought it was too spicy, which every successive pot I made - once a week for three years - I made it hotter and hotter... to the point where I nearly killed Ash from the spiciness that I no longer found excessive.

A few months later after realizing I had a convective oven/microwave, my mother sent me microwavable lasagna shells (is that the word?), and I made three-cheese lasagna at least once a month for two years.

Cheese is another expensive item - especially when one is guessing as to what the hell goes into a lasagna.

Aside from the chili, which apparently became famous enough around Ohtawara - any Japanese female guest was fed some - I was asked to teach a class on how to make it . Matthew was also asked to teach how to make an ice cream cake... so you can say we are semi-professional chefs. Matthew's daughter (my god-daughter) is now a professional chef.

It makes me smile when I think about that last paragraph...

My advice to you, is to get out of your comfort zone as soon as you are able, explore, experiment... and nowadays, use the Internet to learn about things... like where the hell you are living.

Odds are pretty good someone has created a blog about living in either your town or city, or at least in an area similar to your own.

Cripes... if a shiftless man who didn't even know how to shop can get paid to teach how to cook... well... there's hope for everyone.

Except Jeff S. ... a buddy of myself and Matthew (and Ashley), who steadfastly refused to eat Japanese food, and would purchase sandwiches from a local Dunkin' Donuts (nothing like that in my neighborhood)... or would make and take his own peanut butter sandwiches with him to school.

Oh... the school lunches in Japan - fantastic!!!! Don't be like Jeff... get out of your comfort zone and experiment.

I eat Japanese food at least once every week.

Though... to Jeff's credit, he did marry a Japanese woman... so I can only hope he's eating Japanese food by now, some 23+ years later.

Andrew Joseph
PS: No... I never took a photo of my food while in Japan. I wish I had  - but only to show you just how much effort I put into that weekly pot of chili. Since leaving Japan, I made chili once a month later for my parents and brother, and it was horrible... since then, I have not tried to make it... though apparently my wife has bought the ingredients and is hinting I should get out of my comfort zone once again.
PPS: That image at the top shows barbecue eel in a broth with noodles.


  1. Entertaining and informative; you have an excellent and engaging style. I always hoped Bill Bryson would visit and write about Japan but you have effectively done it yourself. These blogs should be collated and released as a book!