After weeks of discarded efforts trying to summarize my experience thus far, I have decided to share my thoughts through a culinary lens and help you explore one of my favorite parts of life in Japan…the food!
It has now been six weeks since I first landed in Tokyo and embarked on my adventure in the land of the rising sun. Driving into Yokohama my first night, I have to say I was a bit surprised at how familiar the setting felt. Highways, buildings and industrial infrastructure mimicked that which you would find in most North American cities. Beyond the minor language barriers I had met along the journey thus far, I found that what I was observing was just regular people doing the same things we all do. Where was this exotic land that I had pictured all my life? Not only have my preconceived notions about Japan been wrong, but the reality is greater than the expectations I had. It is amazing how a place that feels so familiar can be so different.
I think the best way to describe living in Japan is a sensory overload. When milling around the city there is constant input of neon lights and the sound of music and the click of heels and the smell of food and the grip of humidity that hits once outside the comfort of an air conditioned environment. Crowded trains and busy streets complete the experience. As for taste, well we will get to the food in a minute.
Because I don’t usually understand the verbal cues around me, I spend a lot of time observing my surroundings and in this I have noticed that it is the nuances that make Japan so different from anywhere else I have been. I have learned that in such a context-based society, the ability to pick up on these subtleties is very important and the Japanese have an impeccable attention to detail that I really admire. Within almost every sector I have seen such a strong work ethic and even those working janitorial and service jobs go out of their way ensure that every detail is perfect. I have found the Japanese people to be extremely hospitable and despite our language barrier, they have gone out of their way to help me when needed. This especially shines through in the restaurant industry.
Most people who know me know that I am in no way a foodie. My life is not centered around how amazing my next meal is going to be and I have on occasion just forgotten to eat at all. But in Japan, that is not an option because the food is mind blowing-ly, life altering-ly good. And I finally understand. As a result of epiphany, I have ventured into the Japanese food culture whole heartedly and have had many outstanding experiences. In fact, I don’t think I’ve eaten anything that wasn’t meticulously prepared and presented. Coming at a very affordable price, I have eaten out more in the past 6 weeks than the past few years of my life.
My food epiphany began on my very first day of work. In the morning, I had an orientation with the new interns and then we were free for the afternoon. One of my fellow interns had already fully embraced the love of food that Japan offers and was excited to show me, so we went to a ramen restaurant in Shibuya that had been recommended to us. I really did not understand why a bowl of noodles in broth was worth noting, but I was keen to try the Japanese cuisine I had heard so much about. When we got there we were given a sheet of paper asking us about noodle thickness, firmness, level of spice, type of broth, etc. Who knew there was so much involved in ordering noodles? I went down the middle with a medium selection for all and then proceeded to my individual booth. Once the bowl arrived it appeared rather unassuming, but smelled like it was probably going to be the best thing I have ever eaten. And it was quite frankly the perfect mix of every flavor ever put into a dish. To this day I still think about that bowl of ramen. Last week I was able to go back, and despite the many fabulous meals I have had, it remains my favorite.
The main barrier to my food excursions is the language. While in my everyday life I can manage with the basic Japanese phrases I’ve picked up, when it comes to restaurants it has proven difficult to know exactly what I am ordering. Luckily, Japan has a thriving imitation food industry whereby visual samples of every meal are around and most menus have a picture associated with every option. They have clearly thought about this and I think it would be an exceptional idea to implement in Canada. In fact, the fake food industry is a multi-billion dollar sector of the Japanese economy. The industry emerged in 1917 when a Tokyo restaurant used wax models of its meals as an advertising scheme to attract more customers and as a result saw a huge increase in revenue. In 1932, Ryuzo Iwasaki, took the first steps towards building an artifical food empire. The models and photography took the guess work out of ordering and today fake food is used in most restaurants as well as commercials and magasines. Its alot easier to film when the ice cream in the bowl never melts. The imitations are preapred just as meticulously as the meals themselves with attention to ensure the details are an exact match for plate presentation and colour. Today, Iwasaki’s company holds an 80% market share of the imitation food in Japan and is expanding into other foreign markets in Asia.
There are many great and efficient ideas that could be great when applied in the Canadian context and it really makes me aware of just how important open and accessible sharing of knowledge and practices should be. This is something that CITYNET excels at and I am excited to continue to learn through their networking model.
Overall, I have been surprised at how quickly I have adjusted to my new routine. The noise and chatter and crowds that at first intimidated me are now just background noise to my everyday life. I continue to be fascinated by the little things I notice, like how the crowd always seems to experience their excitement collectively and react in unison during a street performance or fireworks show. The more I discover about Japan, the more it intrigues me and I am excited to discover more.
And now a quiz for you! Can you spot the fake ramen meal?