Exiting Far East: Food, Glorious Food.

Exiting Far East: Food, Glorious Food. May 11, 2014

When I was younger, I always had a very complicated relationship with food, and moving to a very foreign country brought that relationship into sharp focus. It’s very true that the last place in an immigrant’s house to assimilate is the pantry, and this old saying applies equally to an emigrant’s house.

I was surprised to learn that the apartment we ended up renting–the one Katsuo had mentioned that he owned–didn’t have a kitchen. It was a studio, like most of the ones I encountered in Sapporo; it had a fully-molded golden rubber bathroom that was all one piece from top to bottom, with an extruded tub, john, and sink, and a Rubbermaid logo near the drain in the floor. Outside the rubber bathroom, the floor was tatami-mat, woven reeds that felt nice to walk on, and also we had a multitude of concealed closet cubbieholes hidden behind wall panels. It was beautifully airy, with a high ceiling and gorgeous bay windows with bench-like windowsill ledges that our cats immediately fell in love with once we’d fetched them from the vet’s office. That was it. That was our new home. And it was huge and rather fancy for its comparatively low price, at least by Sapporo standards.

But it didn’t have a kitchen, just some counters. No fridge, no stove, just a sink. We learned that whatever we chose to do in that area was all up to us. I’d never lived anywhere that just didn’t have a kitchen, so this was a huge stretch for me. We had to spend some of those precious bills buying a futon bed (just a collection of pads and blankets, which we were supposed to roll up every day and put in one of those concealed closet cubbies) and a countertop range, rice cooker, and toaster oven. But refrigerators were insanely expensive; I told myself we’d get one later. We never did get one. So our food options were further limited by not being able to buy anything that would need serious refrigeration; the foyer in the apartment was freezing cold, enough that we put less-perishable items out there to stay cool, but we couldn’t buy more than one day’s worth of meat or dairy products.

Biff had a really tough time of it. Considering his deep and abiding love for all things Japanese, you’d think he’d have been thrilled to immerse himself in a whole new eating style, but strangely, as I learned the new foodways of our new home, he retreated into a childlike insistence on the familiar. Eating Japanese food was fine once in a while, but doing it all the time was alarming and frightening for him. I had to rein him in constantly to stop him from buying the ridiculously-overpriced foods he wanted–pizza, hamburgers, fried chicken, soda, and candy. These could be found quite easily in Japan, though the taste was usually way different (KFC was a very popular chain there, but they served their corn stone cold and instead of mashed potatoes, you got these weird fried cakes of pressed-together rice) and the price was exorbitant.

Had we had all the money in the world, his reckless spending would have been fine to some extent, but we did not. I controlled an ever-dwindling stash of bills and coins, and all but heard my wallet squeak in protest every time I opened it. Our timer was not just one ticking off seconds, but yen. When we ran out of money, that was it: we had to go home. Everything we could do to push that timer back, we had to do it.Very quickly I figured out how to make that money go further: eat like Japanese people eat while in Japan. After a disastrous attempt to make macaroni and cheese in the hot-water heater at our hotel (using weird-tasting Japanese cheese and milk; I think they must pasteurize it differently or something), even Biff had to agree that this was our only logical course of action.

Here, however, we ran into a bit of a logjam. Not only had Japan entered a deep recession in 1994, but there’d been some kind of horrific storm that’d wiped out the rice harvest just before we got there. So we ended up in a huge grocery store, staring at an entirely empty aisle that we thought had to contain rice, and Biff had to go find some poor clerk to ask why there wasn’t rice. Remember, nobody there could really speak fluent English, and we sure couldn’t speak Japanese. Biff had this stupid little electronic dictionary, and with it he managed to communicate with the increasingly-annoyed clerk, who finally made us realize that the reason the aisle was empty was because there just wasn’t any rice. At all. Anywhere. Not anywhere in the whole store. There was none to be had. It took some time to make us understand this, because this was Japan, and how could there not be any rice?

English: Fake food in a restaurant in Kyoto It...
English: Fake food in a restaurant in Kyoto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We tried other grocery stores and got the same response. There was no rice anywhere. At all. Not anywhere in the whole city, except in one little food-market, little more than a convenience store really, that sold pink bags of what we found out was (GASP) Korean rice, about 5 pounds of it for about USD$10, and the sign below it, we discovered quickly, advised that customers could only buy one bag of it per day.

Ironically, we discovered that bread there was incredibly delicious–and inexpensive compared to the rice. Also you could ask the bakery (it was part of a chain of Scandinavian bakeries, so these were just about as common as McDonald’s is here) to slice the bread as thick or thin as you wished; Biff and I both got to love that bread and I still think wistfully of it. They also made these incredible, that-just-can’t-be-right pink rolls that I think were supposed to be strawberry-flavored which I got addicted to as an occasional treat.

As for meat, the same storm that had wiped out the rice had also wiped out a lot of the seafood, apparently, because everything was way too expensive to even consider as a regular mealtime food. Ironically, though, you could get chicken breasts for about a quarter each at one store I knew of downtown, and even ground beef was less expensive than any seafood I saw for sale. I wasn’t heartbroken; I’ve probably mentioned that I’m not wild about seafood anyway. I guess I just wasn’t expecting to move to Japan and not eat seafood at all.

Biff wasn’t a real vegetable fiend, but I was; I’ve always liked them even raw. It was important to me that we try to eat as nutritiously as we could under the circumstances. So I discovered a greengrocer not far from our eventual home that sold vegetables at a somewhat reasonable price; some of it was kind of beaten up, which was why it was there and not at the big fancy supermarkets, but I didn’t care. I could get half a head of what kind of looked like crinkled cabbage (in big oval heads resembling Brussels sprouts) for about a quarter; this amount was more than enough for two adults for a meal, so this unknown vegetable, chunked and sauteed, became part of our regular rotation for our stay. I still don’t know what it was.

So yes: we moved to Japan and lived mostly on bread, chicken, cabbage, and ground beef. I don’t pretend to understand the universe; I just live here.

We survived. But I could tell Biff really wanted something more, and sometimes a bug of homesickness bit us both so severely that we’d find ourselves roaming convenience stores all around town searching for something familiar. One of these ramblings turned up a small packet of Oreo cookies–a little stale, but I didn’t care; I hadn’t even liked Oreo cookies up till then, but they were home to me for a few bites, and even today I like them. And we were lonely for the big splashy dinners and potlucks from back home. I might not believe in Jesus anymore, but I missed those frequent get-togethers and dinner parties. Until moving to Japan, I hadn’t realized how food was entwined in how I participated in my community and how important it was to my identity.

So we tried to recapture that magic while living abroad. I invited friends (one Japanese, one Australian–a young woman with the most startlingly blue eyes you ever saw) from the school over for Chicken Kiev (this recipe isn’t quite like the one I used, but it’s close); it was my party dish, one of the few things I could cook very well and also the only thing in my party-dish repertoire that could be prepared with the appliances I had now. We’d bought a television from an American who’d gone back home, and I remember it was playing Top Gun while I worked in the kitchen and chatted with my friends. Biff had been sent out to buy breadcrumbs, aided by a note from one of those friends to give to the bakery clerk like a ransom note.

It was a cool, crisp day; my friends sat on the futon blanket, petted my cats, and watched an American movie dubbed into Japanese, and once Biff got back, I finished dinner and we all ate together. It felt downright churchy in a way, like breaking bread. Everything was unfamiliar, yet it was familiar all the same. The panko breadcrumbs were much bigger than I was used to, but they worked just fine; the Monterey Jack cheese I like in this dish had been dearly expensive, but you didn’t need much. My friends seemed to love the food; certainly they ate everything I gave them. Neither of them had seen Top Gun, and though it distinctly lost some of its edge when dubbed, watching it and eating with them felt like home for just a little while.

While I worked each day at the school, Biff was going out to play the board game go with a bunch of old dudes at a senior center downtown. He was simply in paradise–he didn’t have to work, just make halfhearted stabs at looking for work, and he could goof off all day long if he wanted; the Japanese guys he played with all thought of him as a child mascot of sorts, and often fed him soup and dumplings from their communal kitchen while he was over there. And because he was a Pentecostal man, he didn’t even have to do a stitch of housework. It must have been nice! One of these old dudes introduced him, about halfway through our stay, to the only Pentecostal church in town; when Biff reached out to them, the Christians there immediately invited us to church and lunch afterward.

They had to come pick us up from a bus stop way out in the suburbs; the buses didn’t even go out as far as these Christians’ church. They were all very excited, friendly, and kind to us, though few of them could communicate with us. When we got there, the church was very Western in appearance–a quaint little one-room affair with pews and two bathrooms (not for men and women, but “Western” and “non-Western”; the Western one had a real toilet in it and was carpeted from floor to ceiling with thick, lemon-yellow shag right up the sides of the commode and tank). I know you’re thinking “Wait, what? Japanese Pentecostals?” but yeah, they were totally Pentecostals. The women wore their hair long and wore loose dresses and skirts; the men were all very earnest in suits. The church looked more like a wedding chapel than a sanctuary, but it was at least comfortable. The choir selections were familiar, so though they were in Japanese, I at least understood what they were about.

After church we ate lunch with them and I tried very hard to use the same manners I saw them using. This is where I discovered the Japanese love for curry, because that’s what they had to share–a thick orange stew with a vaguely curry-scented flavor with vegetables and pork chunks, all served over rice. I don’t think it actually had much in common with real curry, but I didn’t care; I was hungry, and the food was both plentiful and good. It felt downright heartwarming to be eating with a group of friendly people. It was what I had been missing since coming to Japan. I hadn’t been able to understand most of the service itself, so whatever they were saying, it all sounded friendly and polite, not the hellfire and brimstone and guilt-tripping I was used to. But I felt like a space alien as I sat there listening to words I couldn’t understand. And in listening to these incomprehensible speeches, I began to see something that maybe I wouldn’t have noticed had I been able to understand what I was hearing. Not understanding the language detached me from the religious context of the service and made me more observant of how its dynamics worked.

I had a lot to think about regarding the social aspect of my former church involvement, and it was good that I was thinking about it in Japan, where I could see that social aspect as entirely separate from any spiritual truth. I was beginning to perceive that a big part of my involvement with church had been social, and that a big part of being part of a church was being involved with it somehow–teaching Sunday School, cleaning the sanctuary as many women did, being on the choir, you name it. Getting people involved–even just by volunteering to bring food for the potlucks–made them feel more connected and invested. I realized then–and still do–that sometimes people will stay in church, even if they don’t believe, because they value that social aspect of it. I could see how that happens. In a different universe, I might have become one of those sorts of Christians-in-name-only.

But it sure wasn’t going to happen here in Sapporo. I was not about to get up and spend an hour and a half getting to the place; when Biff made noises later about returning, I told him he was welcome to go by himself if he wished, but I would be using my precious weekend sleeping and resting. Unsurprisingly, he chose not to go without me. Not even free food could get me to go through all that effort. I don’t think they were all that interested in carting us around either, because I can’t remember ever talking to them again after that day.

These experiences around food had opened my eyes to a lot of different ideas. I had spent the first half of my time in Japan in a haze of frantic worry and anxiety over money and prospects; halfway through, I was beginning to think that maybe we weren’t going to be able to stay, and I was loosening up to notice the world around me. Ironically, failure freed me. I was starting to notice the bizarre (to me anyway) Japanese attitude toward religion and Christianity in particular, and starting to see how a thoroughly secular society can still be thoroughly ritualistically religious. Being totally outside this culture let me observe it in a way that I never had been able to observe my own culture. And I have Sailor Mars to thank for it, as crazy as it sounds. Join me next time, when we’ll be taking the birds-eye view of religion. I’ll be getting thrown out of a Shinto temple and taking what turned out to be an entirely unauthorized tour of an honest-to-goodness monastery. (I know, I know: worst letter to Penthouse ever.) I hope you’ll join me–bring your indoor shoes!

 

Sailor Mars
Sailor Mars (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

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