Strange Spread: The Vibrant World of Japanese Cuisine

Sushi rolls and platters at the Hokkaido Food Fair in Koriyama's Usui Department Store

Sushi rolls and platters at the Hokkaido Food Fair in Koriyama’s Usui Department Store

Maybe the Scottish brogue was throwing me. I don’t, after all, have a particularly good ear for Celtic cadences. Having a knack for inappropriateness I never knew myself capable of since moving to Japan, I assumed my brain, under the influence of diabolic dyslexia, registered the offering as “fish sperm”.

However, the pale intestinal thing he jiggled at me with a pair of chopsticks was indeed fish sperm, known culinarily as milt, defined by TheFreeDictionary as “seminal fluid produced by male fish”. You can watch this gloriously discourteous video on Shirako, the sperm sacs of a male cod.

Earlier that day, during my lunch at the Fukushima branch office, I had already dared my digestion by trying some packaged fresh fish from the 7-11 convenience store, which I later found out to be a type of Japanese blue-backed fish (背の青い魚; this one most likely a kind of mackerel), mouth-wateringly sour, succulent, sweet, and unfortunately stubbornly pungent (my apologies to any post-lunch students or coworkers reading this).

Following my painful ordeal of having (knowingly) ingested glutenicious yet delicious Japanese foods during my first week or so here in Koriyama, I’ve been vigilant in my efforts to eat only natural foods with no fancy dressings such as those in the ubiquitous and customary soy sauce—soaked dishes. But outside the inviting glow of restaurants and under the fluorescents of the supermarket, the world of Japanese cuisine has not ceased to amaze me with its selection of the weird and wonderful.

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On a rather slow yet sunny Monday, my usual day off, I ventured to Usui at the behest of some clever students who suggested I visit this downtown, ten-floor department store to find some much-needed Japan-style postcards to send to family and friends (hold on, they’re coming!) – these being the same students who fawned over their favorite dish, Omuraisu.

On the top floor, I stumbled into a maze of market stalls and smells I have never smelled in my 26 years of smelling. I saw foods and creatures I’ve never set sights on and some I never want to again. Disturbingly beautiful mounds of translucent red roe eggs precariously spilled atop basins of ice, hewn blocks of hardish pink and green marine, and the kawaii-est (cute) cubes of chocolate and perfectly circular balls of lightly dusted mochi – everything so pleasing to the eye and yet so utterly unknown and exactly what any curious traveler would want out of an exploratory outing.

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The most alluring of the smells, aside from the puffed sweet potato loafs lightly toasting under hot lights at several of the booths in the front of the fair, turned out to be one of the more gruesome looking: Ikameshi, sweet rice—stuffed squid, which hails from Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost prefecture.

Roasting Ikameshi at the Hokkaido Food Fair at Usui

Roasting Ikameshi at the Hokkaido Food Fair at Usui

I gave the less lovingly piled intestinal-looking slime heaps a wide berth, past heated buffet trays lined with mouth-watering jumbo fried crab cakes. Behind the plastic or glass display cases, perfectly rolled sushi rolls as big as a babe’s arm and ornately arranged bento boxes shined in what I had assumed was a toxic veneer of sprayed laminate.

Upon a little research, however, these and much of the food shown in the many store-front displays here are plastic replicas. In fact, fake food goes back some ways in Japan, evolving from short-lived wax-made models in the Shōwa period (1926—1989) to today’s vinyl makes with a much longer shelf life. The phenomenon, according to several sources, was spurred by Western influence and has its value today for tourists braving an all-Kanji menu in less English-prevalent prefectures.

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In addition to some fan literature on the subject – including Yasunobu Nose’s Japanese People Eat With Their Eyes – there is a famous street in Tokyo, Kappabashi-dori, lined with shops selling plastic restaurantery from fake knives to the most intricately detailed blue-backs.

As much as I enjoy gawping at and drooling over the all-too-perfect window works, I still have a long way to go in learning Japanese if I want to try all of Japan’s real gluten-free offerings.

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Tokyo-to, Ho!

A torii (shrine gate) across from the park

A torii (shrine gate) across from the park

After having finished the exasperatingly lengthy Wicked series over the course of two or three years (interspersed with plenty of other more worthwhile reads, of course), I needed something to fulfill my craving for a fictional work with more realistic setting and less munchkins and tired tropes of simple good versus evil.

Interestingly, if not serendipitously, I rediscovered a pdf uploaded on my Kindle more than a year ago, The Neuromancer, by William Golding. Set in futuristic Tokyo – which, even during its ancient times as the city of Edo, was known as the “floating world” of sumos, samurais, and salacious back-alley attractions – the Blade Runner/Fifth Element plot thrusts the reader into the life of a by-the-seat-of-his-pants dealer in unending, drug-fueled nights of the capital of the Rising Sun.

I myself will be Tokyo-bound soon, with a far less lascivious agenda in mind. The company-related trip will give me a chance perhaps to pick up some postcards and trinkets to send back to the States, seeing as how Koriyama does not offer much in the way of the touristy and tacky.

One of the few sidewalks cleared in Koriyama's Kaiseizan Park

One of the few sidewalks cleared in Koriyama’s Kaiseizan Park

I can only hope Yuki Onna (雪女; a ghostly female equivalent of the West’s Jack Frost) has finished her two-week tour of the East coast. According to Japan Times, 19 people died in snow-related incidents since the storm began.

Unaccustomed to such severe weather, the city of Koriyama itself doesn’t seem to have any snow plows – only a few backhoes assumedly lent out by construction companies and the good will of the shovel-ready citizens. The shelves of the majority of 7-11 and Family Mart convenience stores in the vicinity have been nearly emptied due to traveling restrictions for both those walking or driving.

Due to the heavy snowfall Saturday, I made my way to Fukushima City once again by the astoundingly fast and blessedly toasty (I thank the Japanese for having the good sense of heated seats, both for train benches and toilets) Shinkansen, or bullet train. Cars buried and buses out of commission, most students arrived on foot through unplowed, slippery streets.

Sakura Street, the main road of downtown Koriyama

Sakura Street, the main road of downtown Koriyama. Sakura means “cherry blossom”

On Sunday, a coworker and I had our own misadventure, as we made a perilous and halting six-hour drive (eight for her, the poor soul) to the company’s mall location, normally only a 15-20—minute drive from downtown Koriyama. On a stretch just before the mall entrance, her car swerved to the left, entrenching itself into an icy embankment. Instantly, six or seven eager passersby, shovels in hand, came to the rescue.

While New Orleans or Australia has never looked better, I’m still taken aback a bit by the genuine kindness of the people here. Only last night, an interesting scene played out outside my apartment window as several men rescued a few of the stray cats that seem to live under the porch of a small, abandoned brown-and-white Sukiya-zukuri villa (traditional Japanese-style housing).

My own apartment complex is still, after three days, without hot water, and after several boiled-snow-water rinses, I’m looking forward to a nice warm shower when I get to my hotel in Tokyo.

An icy waterfall opposite Koriyama train station

An icy waterfall opposite Koriyama train station

Koriyama Covered

Nature gaveth last week as she eased her whipping winds and warmed the air to an ideal Springy 60 degrees. Not surprisingly – or at least it should’ve been – she tooketh away, releasing an icy chill and snow hell over northeast Japan this weekend, what the papers are saying is the heaviest snowfall here in decades.

Just the beginning of the snow dump

Just the beginning of the snow dump

With her frozen fury, she brought frequent quakes, which in turn froze me on the spot; although I’ve been here a month to the day, I’m still not accustomed to what many of my students simply shrug off.

Koriyama has its simplistic beauty to begin with, but under a gloss of blinding snow, it takes on an even more gorgeous appearance, its gentle shingled red roofs turning bright porcelain and prettily dusted yew trees holding clutches of snow in airy shrine courtyards.

Shrine statues primed for the storm in their yodarekake (red votive bib)

Shrine statues primed for the storm in their yodarekake (red votive bib)

I’m pleased, too, of how much I myself have covered in the month since I arrived, and I can honestly say it can be wholly attributed to the company for which I work, freecom (lowercase f intended). As teachers are on a rotating basis between three different locations in the Fukushima prefecture – downtown Koriyama city, Koriyama Festa mall, and Fukushima city – I add a few new faces to my class load each week.

On Sunday, I traveled north to Fukushima, the first time on my own and in ill conjunction with the inclement weather, which effectively interrupted the local train schedule and left me in a panic at the station. I unwittingly purchased a ticket for the Shinkansen, or bullet train, and found myself in Fukushima in a mere 10 minutes, whereas the local track would’ve had me there in about an hour’s time.

Passing by in an impressively long blur from the train windows, Mt. Adatara lazes heavily along the periphery of the city, which itself has a population lower than Koriyama’s despite being the capital of the Fukushima prefecture.

A map of Koriyama on the planetarium floor of the city's "Eye" with Japan's 4th-largest lake on the left

A map of Koriyama on the planetarium floor of the city’s “Eye” with Japan’s 4th-largest lake on the left

Though I was on my own for the day – with the exception of the front desk staff employee, a more laidback Japanese 20-something with a heavily influenced American accent after having spent some time in Seattle – my schedule included some unfamiliar names with fascinating backgrounds: a Japanese wine shop owner, a disaster planner for the city of Fukushima, and a spirited young woman involved in designing devices to study brain waves during sleep.

My other students typically range from office workers and engineers at big-name Japanese electronics and power companies to housewives and students studying for the decisive and dreaded TOIEC test.

The foreign-born (gaijin in Japanese) teachers at freecom English school themselves are a motley crew: three Americans including myself, two Scots (one being the founder), one Brit, a bloke from Ireland, and a Frenchman. The Japanese staff, all of whom are far too accommodating and kind, include the quiet, behind-the-scenes string puller keeping a watchful eye on expenses and contracts and who also thoughtfully bought me a rice cooker during my week of gluten gastrophie.

A small park near a shrine in Koriyama

A small park near a shrine in Koriyama

And my current cast of characters doesn’t stop there, meine damen und herren. I’ve entertained irresistibly curious Koriyama natives in coffee shops – a smoking Nepalese with the peaceful/drunk smile of Buddha – the old man who provided mall dinner in exchange for some English exchange, and serendipitously helpful train commuters who all waved excitedly as we departed ways Sunday night.

The snow has stopped falling, but the remainder of my stay – however long that may be – and undoubtedly my as-yet undecided future will continue to have a colorful cadre float in and out of my life for as long as I don’t tire of the transience.

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Demons Out, Luck In!

The third of February here in Koriyama might have resembled Halloween day in the States, with children in red devil masks chasing one another around the shrine courtyard Sunday night.

Bean Ceremony Statue and Moon

At six o’clock, though, the festivities turned more somber as a parade of young girls donning pillbox-like hats festooned with dangling golden coins, young to middle-aged men sporting powder-blue tunics, and bald monks garbed in flashy gold silk robes strode past the audience and into the inner temple like some multigenerational beauty pageant runway.

Since my arrival, stores – and even one of my favorite sumo wrestlers for an NHK commercial advert – have been advertising children’s oni (demon) masks for the event known as Setsubun, or Bean-Throwing Ceremony.

Bean Ceremony Temple

The purpose of the yearly ceremony is to drive away and cleanse one’s house of evil spirits (more later on my favorite characters of Japan’s otherworld – yokai). The ceremony culminates with the actual bean-throwing, which, unfortunately, my companions and I did not witness as the air became colder and my stomach rumbled; nor did it help that a few food stalls had been set up in the courtyard for the event, wafting dreamy scents of cotton candy and kebab that smelled gloriously of bacon and caramel.

Adorably, in the home, one can opt to play the role of the demon, while the other family members chase and pelt them with dried beans. There is also a custom, it seems, of eating one’s age in beans to ensure a good year. A few of my students attested to the ritual of eating roasted beans, but wouldn’t reveal how many.

Bean Ceremony Stalls

Frivolity aside, the cozily lit shrine Sunday evening was filled with tinny chimes and pinging bells while the main priest was lowing his prayers. The unusually beautiful cacophony was suddenly interrupted by increasingly louder shouts by the men surrounding the priest, each raising their accordion-folded prayer books high in the air and letting them collapse back into form as a more adroit and ostentatious poker player would shuffle his deck.

Knowing very little about the Shinto religion, I’ll be reading up in the next few weeks on its core beliefs, the symbols attached to it (including the two guard dogs, one open- and the other closed-mouthed), and more of its colorful characters.

Shrine Guard

Volcano Snowboarding

During my first week in Japan, I mentioned a minor yet troubling — to me, at least — tremor I felt whilst relaxing and watching sumo on the television one night.

My students, half of whom were not even aware of the event, barely raised an eyebrow at the news, bemused at my worrisome need to know if I should pack up and leave Koriyama posthaste. Of course, Japan is synonymous with volcanos, I’m aware, and the ubiquitous three-pronged symbol for “mountain” (yama or san) emblazons everything from business advertisements to the decorative kakemono scrolls of calligraphic kanji adorning homes and restaurants alike.

Indeed, it is even in the name of the city itself: 郡山(Kori-yama).

The following weeks, as I settled into the school and got to know a few of the other teachers, I was invited to go snowboarding at a resort on the nearby Mt. Bandai. I was seriously dubious on two fronts: one being that I had never snowboarded before, and two being that it would be on an active stratovolcano.

Parking Lot View

Mt. Bandai’s cloud-ringed summit from the resort’s parking lot

If my paranoia seems odd, I must add that I believe Pennsylvania to be, unquestionably, the safest place on earth; no earthquakes, tornadoes (right, save for a scant few prior to 2013 according to Tornado History Watch), mudslides, etc. And blessedly no volcanos.

Granted, my paranoia does also seem overstated in light of some Wikipediaing I did on the history of Mt. Bandai, standing at 1,819 m (5,968 ft) and the eighth tallest mountain in Honshu, whose last eruption occurred in 1888. In comparison, the ever-prominent and stand-alone Mt. Fuji, at 3,776 m (12,388 ft) and the highest mountain in Japan, last erupted in 1707.

You can squint at some morbid photos of the scene unfolding following Bandai’s eruption, which resulted in the deaths of over 400 people, here.

Along the stretch of dry, mustard-colored squares of field neatly arranged on the open landscape before the slope rises and interspersed with narrow irrigation canals, one can imagine the effect the violent and deadly eruption of Bandai-san in 1888 had on the surrounding topology.

A beautiful screen depicting Bandai's 1888 eruption

A beautiful screen depicting Bandai’s 1888 eruption

Though the nature of the event, I realize, was and is not to be taken lightly in the face of casualties and the damage caused, I did dredge up from the resources provided on Bandai’s unfortunate history, an unintentionally humorous account of the events written by a loquacious gentlemen who was surely prone to Rue McClanahanesque fanning and fainting at the slightest of shocking news. An excerpt from the article reads:

“After one of the hardest little trips I ever took, having covered the 244 miles by jinricksha (man-drawn carriage), cart, hack, railway, and by walking, I am almost too much used up to undertake, until I get rested, to tell you what I saw. I certainly could not do the subject justice under any circumstances, but as the mail is closing for the States I will try to give you a faint idea of my trip.”

Blanche shocked

Jumpier than a virgin at a prison rodeo.

I imagine a newspaper editor of today would strangle themselves – or the reporter responsible – before finishing the first line. On the other hand, the reporter does do justice to detailing the event and quite prosaically:

“Reaching their doors they saw a thick black smoke arising from the principal peak of Bandaisan, and found themselves enveloped in the darkness of night…The earth was shaking and trembling and undulating like the waves of the ocean, so that even standing was impossible, and the miserable creatures, fallen down or thrown down, endeavored to crawl on their hands and knees in agonizing effort to save themselves.”

Oh, what it were that we still wrote as such.

Nevertheless, standing below the mountain’s apex, its winter foliage dusted in gray-white snow looking all for the world like a blanket of the softest lamb’s ear, I felt no tremors and kept my mad thoughts to myself so the others might not take me as a both a paranoid and hypochondriacal loon. Besides which, I had plenty to worry about during my first two descents – passing more for multiple accelerated crashes and blows – but I couldn’t have had a better time.

Resources:

http://www.volcano.si.edu/ (My go-to monitoring site for volcano activity around the world)

http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?_r=1&res=940DE3DD1F38E033A25754C0A96F9C94699FD7CF&oref=slogin

A few photos from the day at Bandai:

Snowboard StrappingIMG_0112At the top Self shot skiingSki Lift ViewSki Lift with ViewFrom Liberty LodgeSkiiersSnowboarder

Putain, Gluten!

I remember this pain. I rolled over, expecting to see the sun peeping over the low-rises in downtown Koriyama, but what really roused me was the churning sensations in my stomach. I had let my guard down during my first week or so in Japan, eating unknown foods and dressings and letting open the gates for my old arch enemy, Gluten.

Now that it’s my third week here, I’m teaching full days of classes – up to eight a day – and there is little break between each lesson. 40-minute session, 10 minute in-between (unless the previous class runs over), repeat. It’s a wonderfully structured system, each session focusing on very specific target language the student should be able to use effectively by the end and remember it for the next time the lesson is repeated.

I mentioned before how English teachers must be part entertainer, and when you’re immobilized by pain down below, it shows up above; by the end of the day, my efforts to smile and keep upbeat for the students have exhausted me. I’m afraid my glum silence and moments of outright confusion might put off my co-workers – the other day, a fellow teacher asked me several times for a certain file, and for all my frustrated efforts to focus and acquiesce his request, I could barely function enough to answer him with a full sentence. I even opted out of a Tokyo trip with the school for fear that I might have to spend some pretty yen on medical advice and meds or, worse, draw more unnecessary attention to my, frankly, annoying situation during the trip.

A package of mochi squares, ready to boiled and made into delicious treats

A package of mochi squares, ready to boiled and made into delicious treats

However, I’m lying low now, planning carefully my next grocery store attack. I didn’t come 6,600 miles across the world to not sample Japan’s best, and it’s not as if though this subject hasn’t been breached already by gaijin bloggers who have been braving the wheat beast in Japan for some years now. Of course, there are a few Japanese dishes I absolutely must push from my mind, ne’er to be tasted by my lips:

Miso soup – it comes with nearly every meal and can include such base ingredients as soybeans, barley, rice, buckwheat, millet, rye, and wheat. One can find that almost-legendary fifth taste, umami, in several kinds of miso. I had at least two bowls, wittingly, during my first three days in Japan.

Soy sauce – Many of my students, because food can be such a popular topic in class to rouse discussion, now know of my allergy. Though at first I believed their incredulous “Eeeeeehhhhhs?” to be a typically polite Japanese expression of interest, I’ve found, even talking with students in the medical field and reading up on what little research there is on the subject here, that gluten sensitivity is hardly known to the Japanese population. Many students have been intrigued with what toppings I put on my sashimi or sushi, and when I answer “nothing” or “just wasabi”, I receive another adorably astounded “Eeeeeehhhhh?”

Soba Noodles – Like 711s, soba joints dot the cityscape of Koriyama, offering cheap, delicious, and filling lunches. And, like ramen noodles, packed with gluten.

Amazingly, halfway through writing this, my belly aching serendipitously let up as I thought of the Japanese treats I can eat and some I have yet to try:

Sashimi & sushi – While I’ve already had my fair share of both since arriving, I can’t wait for more. Despite the absence of soy or tamari sauce, I find the fresh fare delicious as is, particularly the octopus, which has an excellent texture and savory taste.

My sashimi fare after a day of snowboarding, with a regrettably untouched bowl of steaming miso soup

My sashimi and green tea fare after a day of snowboarding, with a regrettably untouched bowl of steaming miso soup

Yatsuhashi – Made from rice flour, sugar, and cinnamon and stuffed tortilla—like in appearance, these confectionaries are ubiquitous in the sweet shops lined in front of supermarkets in Koriyama.

Mochi – I’ve been dreaming of this rice paste before my arrival. Though a gluten-avoider should be prudent to read the packaging to make sure only rice flour has been used to dust the squares, most mochi is gluten-free and can be mixed with a bean paste and sugar for a tasty snack, according to several of my students.

Watch this mouthwatering preparation of sweet mochi.

Edamame – At restaurants in the States, it’s sometimes stale popcorn or tortilla chips. Here, it’s delightfully fresh, bright green edamame.

O-nigiri – Found lining the shelves and in abundance at every 7-11 and Family Mart, these little triangular seaweed-wrapped sandwiches are great lunchtime snacks (though I stick to only the plain ones, as others contain wheat additions).

There have been a few times when, cocky from such a long run of a pain-free stomach and clear head (well, not all of the time), I believed Celiac’s Disease to be another ailment manufactured in the hypochondriac portion of the brain. Now that the angry gluten gods have made me humble once again, I’m taking my kanji learning for the grocery store more seriously and being – politely – suspicious of all restaurant foods.

In addition, a student who happens to have some interest in the field of food allergies would like to meet with me, discussing the possibility of studying the effects of Chinese herbal remedies on my body. I have little to say on this area, but I’ll treat it with the same approach I take in any life situation: Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, unless it has gluten.

Resources:

http://ctrlalteat.com.au/gluten-free-japan/

http://lazybeggars.wordpress.com/2013/08/22/japan-is-not-the-gluten-free-mecca-you-think-it-is/

(list much like this one; first alerted me to teas with gluten in them and gluten-free soy joy bars)

http://justhungry.com/japan-dining-out-cards

(helpful dietary restriction cards to show waiters at restaurants)