The biggest reason I was able to live in a small city in Japan for as long as I did was a seventy-one-year-old woman named Tama. Despite a language barrier that ensured our deep thoughts and the complexities of our personalities would remain a mystery to one another, we got on well and saw each other weekly. She cared for me, taking me to the hospital once in summer for severe dehydration (after an ill-advised half-marathon run on a hot day with a new long-distance group), and again in winter for a torn calf muscle (after crashing over an icy mogul on a ski slope). We taught each other our languages. We went out for meals. She delivered vegetables from her garden to my door and taught me not to plant my tomatoes near my eggplants. We often cooked together. She showed me how to make Japanese dishes like tempura, agedashi tofu, and gyoza, while I taught her to make truly mundane dishes that she repeatedly requested, despite my insistence that we could do better than spaghetti bolognese, fancy sandwiches, and banana bread. (The banana bread episode was a real debacle. She had invited her friends for this particular demonstration, so I was properly on display. Her minuscule oven—it was unclear to me whether it had been bought for the occasion or unused for years—malfunctioned and the bread wouldn’t bake, so of course, due to politeness protocol, I later found myself sitting at her table surrounded by nine septuagenarians smiling and eating what was essentially warm banana batter from bowls with spoons, nodding and telling me it was delicious.) Food was a large part of our friendship.
Food was also one of the most persistent reminders that I was living somewhere foreign. One evening, my Australian friend Aaron and I decided we would finally try the little yakitori restaurant down a small alley in our neighbourhood. We had noticed it many times, and since the kanji for yakitori was one of the few I had memorized at that point, in a way our meal there seemed predestined. (For the uninitiated, yakitori translates to grilled chicken, and consists of skewered chicken pieces [and chicken parts] cooked over charcoal and seasoned, most commonly with salt or a sweet sauce. It’s really really good.) The interior was small and wooden, and there were a few stools lined up in front of a counter dotted with ceramic condiment vessels and ash trays. When a man came out from the back, he greeted us warmly. The menu was handwritten and had no photos, so I asked him to please bring us a dish of his recommendation. When he returned some time later with our meal, we were puzzled.
“Hey,” I said to Aaron. “Aren’t we in a chicken place?”
“Why do you think he brought us sashimi?”
Aaron shrugged and said “Itadakimasu,” (bon appétit) and we cracked apart our chopsticks. Before us was a beautiful plating of pale pink sashimi, scattered with paper-thin garlic slices and delicate curls of chili peppers. Two small dishes of sauce perched artfully on the side. The man stood back and waited eagerly for us to taste the dish he had prepared. I put a piece in my mouth, and it wasn’t until it had been in there a while that I realized what I was eating. It was chicken. It was raw. It was confronting. It was delicious. I probably wouldn’t eat it again.
I like to eat and to cook Japanese food, and so I didn’t often miss food from home. Until suddenly I did. Acutely. I would find myself blindsided by an intense craving for nachos. My whole body wanted nachos. Gherrrrd, I needed nachos. Or garlic dill pickles. Or granola. Hummus! Brieee!! And then I didn’t—the moment would pass and I’d continue munching on my tuna rice ball. Because I couldn’t shop for those things on a regular basis, I didn’t think of them all that much. But then one day an opportunity presented itself, and I went all the way.
Nothing is less Japanese than Costco, except perhaps eating standing up, super-sized fries, road rage, and Christmas. Wholesale megastores are decidedly out of place among the other food buying options that side of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Even in the average Tokushima grocery store one would not find the shopping trolleys that come standard in North American shops, and while big supermarket chains are prevalent there, boasting long wide aisles of processed poisons, there was not a POS conveyor belt in sight. People there just don’t really buy big, which may be one reason why in Canada I’m a size M, and in Japan I’m like a double XL.
That said, there was a Costco in Amagasaki, just two hours of bridges and highways from Tokushima, and one day Tama invited Aaron and I to go there with her. We had spoken of it during a culinary discussion over dinner at Tama’s several months earlier. We told her of a place, a large and distant and brilliantly lit place boasting high ceilings and delicacies such as dill pickles, Spanish olives, Havarti cheese, chocolate by the kilogram, and granola.
“It’s cheap,” we told her. “Big and cheap.”
This is the conversation that led to her one day borrowing a friend’s Costco card, the three of us piling into her tiny square Mitsubishi, and driving the pricey highways to Hyogo prefecture.
We arrived and parked. We negotiated throngs of Sunday afternoon shoppers mindlessly pushing jumbo trolleys full of jumbo miso, jumbo mayo, jumbo nori, jumbo chocolate-covered pretzels. We jumbo shopped. Pushing past my food-mileage-related guilt, I selected some mascarpone. Giving in to homesickness, I seized tortillas and salsa. We piled high the olives and pickles and biscuits and muffins and Corn Flakes and bricks of aged cheddar and garbanzo beans and even jelly beans.
The contents of Tama’s cart were sparse: tissues, cling wrap, sliced beef, and a package of a stomach-turning product so perplexing and revolting I couldn’t keep my eyes away. Through the transparent wrapper I saw eight chubby, sausage-shaped processed meat products wrapped around bones. Actual bones. If you can somehow imagine a meat popsicle—a collection of processed animal parts wrapped around a recycled bone from some unfortunate and unidentifiable animal species—this was it. A sausage with a bone jammed up inside. Tama’s judgment had clearly been impaired by the overwhelming experience that was Costco. I hurried away from her.
After the shame-inducing checkout experience, during which we watched our gluttony gliding along before us on a rubber conveyor, we paid a visit to the grimy-floored food court. The look on Tama’s face when we ordered our 200¥ ($2) lunch combos and were handed 20oz disposable cups with foil-wrapped pizza slices inside them was one of sheer bewilderment. We apologized to her many times over the course of the afternoon, embarrassed to have this greedy, gross side of our culture revealed to her so nakedly. I realized that a place like Costco was intrinsic to the perpetuation—validation—of negative stereotypes, stereotypes I lived with each time someone’s jaw dropped when I told them that I could use chopsticks, I ate vegetables, I didn’t eat meat three times a day, and that hamburgers were not my favourite food.
Tama announced on the drive home that she would like us all to visit Costco monthly, and that she’d like to have us over for dinner the following evening.
When we got to Tama’s house the next day she met us in her driveway and I presented her with a box of beautifully over-packaged cookies. She disappeared into the house and returned brandishing a bag of perfect red apples, each nestled in its own protective foam netting. I tried to resist, repeatedly refusing them, but ended up bowing a thousand times and putting them in the backseat before we all went inside. I learned another of the myriad important lessons when it comes to the complex practice of gift giving in Japan: wait until the very end, literally until you are saying goodbye and getting into the car to drive home, before you present your gift to the host. Otherwise she will in return give you a gift from her personal stash, an act dictated by custom that will leave you feeling greedy and deflated—you came with a meagre box of cookies and will be leaving with a full stomach and probably all of her apples.
We followed the cooking aromas into the kitchen. Gyoza, vegetable soup, squid tempura caught that day by Tama’s husband. I could see a bowl of potato salad, a dish of gomae, and something else sizzling away in a fry pan. I elbowed Aaron and whispered, “Look on the stove,” and he did, then looked back at me, expressionless and shaken. The meat popsicles. I could feel my throat constricting as I realized that at some point very soon I would actually have to raise one of these abominations to my lips and politely eat it, even pretend to enjoy it.
While I didn’t deem such monstrosities worthy of pre-gustation discussion, and didn’t wish to seem impolite, Aaron luckily had no such qualms.
“What are those?” he said.
“What?” said Tama.
“Those things in the pan.”
Tama, who was slicing vegetables at the counter, blinked. She looked at me then back at him. She seemed worried that she was being tricked. “Frankfurters,” she said. Tama was puzzled by this question because she believed she was preparing western food for her western guests, and therefore that we should already be familiar with, and even excited to enjoy, this taste of home.
If these are enjoyed anywhere in the world, it is surely by a remote few who keep it as a shameful secret.
Aaron continued. “Is that a bone?”
“From what animal?”
“Chicken. Maybe. Maybe pig.”
Now Tama stopped what she was doing—dressing the boneless green salad—and turned and looked at us. It was a long hard look, both accusatory and nonplussed. I smiled through the silence, stopping only when I realized my eyebrows were raised and I was grimacing a little. “Why why?” she said. Tama was clearly stunned.
This was not the only food I encountered in Japan that had been embraced and marketed as something foreign. Such delicacies could be spotted in the American Food section of a menu along with fried potato (fries) and corn soup. I once got in an argument with a ten-year-old student of mine during a discussion about our favourite foods. This took place shortly after my arrival in Japan and I had not yet encountered the family restaurant favourite known as hamburg (pronounced ham-bah-gu):
Me: What’s your favourite food?
Me: No no, your favourite food.
Me: You mean hamburger.
I went on to explain to little Yoshitoki that there was no such thing, that Hamburg is a city in Germany, not something to eat. I even showed him a map. I mistook his silence for concession, though realistically his English conversation abilities were insufficient to hold ground in an argument with his ignorant new teacher. Only later did I discover hamburg on a menu. I ordered it in an act of atonement. What arrived before me was a greyish ground beef patty dripping with brown sauce and accompanied by a cube of fried chicken and a limp broccoli floret.
After a few more moments of silence Aaron continued. “I mean, why a bone?”
Tama gave the only answer there could possibly be: “To hold.”
When the time came I ate the monster quickly and efficiently, and even though the processed meat itself tasted of any other hot dog, my gag reflex required that I douse the beast in the ketchup and mustard Tama had thoughtfully put on the table next to the soy sauce and matcha salt. When I got down to the recycled bone of ambiguous origin I held my breath. I was contemplating what amount of processed mystery meat would be acceptable for a person to leave on the chicken bone or pork bone or whatever it was when I noticed Tama, still shaken by our incomprehensible line of questioning, observing us. When I saw the pleasure she was taking in watching us enjoy her Frankfurters I took a breath, closed my eyes and went for it. Distracting myself with thoughts of the awaiting gyoza, I nibbled that bone-stick clean.
Aaron was offered a second and, after feigning indecision for a mere moment, he accepted. A teeny bit of my respect for him floated away. I reached for the salad, feeing triumphant in having endured my first “Frankfurter.” I hid the bone under a lettuce leaf, sipped my beer, and got on with my life.