Archive for the ‘Food and Drink’ Category
You know when you go on holiday to some exotic clime and you think, “Oh I’ll buy a little something for the office from here. You know, just to be nice.” You do this and everyone in your office appreciates the kind gesture. What happens is Japan is, “Oh, I better not forget to buy something for the office or they will regard me as scum.”
Yes, in Japan buying a little something for the office is basically expected of you. You not only have to buy them when you go on a big holiday but also if you go on a weekend trip somewhere. I dunno about you but when I worked in an office I definitely did not expect random snacks every time someone went on a weekend trip to Margate.
These little gifts, known in Japanese as omiyage, can be just about any small foodstuff. Generally sweets, chocolates, cakes or jelly but can also include stuff like sake and cheese. Omiyage is what I blame for there being no Japanese version of Mars Celebrations, but that is another story.
Omiyage is also another example of not being able to trust anything your Japanese-English dictionary says. The usual translation for omiyage is generally souvenir. Don’t trust that definition for a second. The always useful Dictionary.com defines souvenir as:
“A usually small and relatively inexpensive article given, kept, or purchased as a reminder of a place visited, an occasion,etc.;memento.”
Sure, omiyage is generally small but souvenirs are supposed to be a reminder of a place visited. Many times the place that you have just visited may hold no special meaning for the person receiving the omiyage or, at least, none that you are aware of. This is it just something that you must give to co-workers/family/friends, simply because that is what people do.
The best meaning for omiyage I can think up is:
”A small gift (usually food) that you must give people after you have been on a trip, otherwise they will think you are rude.”
Omiyage is so ubiquitous that shops dedicated to the selling of it are at just about any location of vague interest. Anywhere even just a little bit touristy has these things all over the place. Worse is that in the many shinkansen stations and airports dotted around Japan there are now omiyage shops which specialise in goods from other regions. So, say a couple who live in Tokyo visit Kyoto for a weekend, they no longer have to bother with the difficult process of thinking of others while there. They can just buy some random stuff from Kyoto at Tokyo train station when they return. Even madder there are now companies that have “Omiyage catalogues” which deliver this stuff to your door. So you don’t even have to take the time to go to a shop.
To me omiyage seems to be a thing that people are expected to do rather than stuff given out of the goodness of their heart, which is kind of sad. But perhaps this culture of gift giving has lead to the BEST THING EVER MADE™.
I recently went on a trip to Yamanashi, the prefecture where Mount Fuji is. We went for a drive up to the base of the mountain and there I found something incredible, Mount Fuji shaped melon bread. Anyone who knows me will be aware that I think freshly made, bakery melon bread is the greatest of all Japanese food. Shaping it in such a cool Japanese way just perfects it. Not only that it was, hand on heart, perhaps the greatest melon bread I have ever tasted. Having sampled it for myself I realised that I had to share its greatness with others. So, I am telling you about it dear readers and I also bought a couple to share with my house-mates.
THAT was done out of the goodness of my heart, as they are British folk no omyiage is expected but this find is something that I just had to give them a chance to try.
Have you ever tried to tear into a sachet of sauce only for it to be impossible to open, the plastic stretches out but there is no getting into it? Or even worse, suddenly it explodes, resulting in all manner of ketchup covering your clothes and not your hot dog. Well, due to the latest Japanese technology such problems are now a thing of the past.
A company named Dispen Pak Japan have invented a genius dispenser for sauces and salad dressing which is easy to open and aim. It works by having 2 soft plastic pouches covered by a hard one on top. All you have to do is fold the two pouches together and the top bit will form a spout. If all went well the sauce pours out beautifully and as a bonus, squeezing the two pouches together makes sure you don’t waste a drop.
The two pouch system not only eliminates waste but it also allows you to pour out 2 different sauces at once. Although this does assume that you would want both butter and jam in your toast every time.
I first saw these little packs a couple of years ago and my first thought was that we should use them back home. I have been in Japan for such a long time now though. For all I know they are standard issue in British B&Bs. Has the UK embraced the future or is it still lagging behind, as it has for so many years, in condiment technology? Answers on a postcard please.
(or just in the comments if you don’t know my address)
When I still worked at an elementary school, the kitchen staff decided to have a British cuisine themed school lunch one day. This was very nice and flattering and all but despite asking me for food suggestions it was obvious that the menu had been designed by someone who had never been within 500 miles of the UK. So that day, in spring 2012, we ate something similar to shepherd’s pie, vegetable soup, cheese bread, an apple and tea jelly.
Having tea jelly was certainly an experience but what stuck out most for me that day was something written on the Paku Paku Dayori. I noticed that they had written the old proverb, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” on the sheet. It was a delight to see this translated in Japanese to “１日１個のりんごを食べるとお医者さんがいらない” which kinda means “1 day, eat 1 apple and you don’t need a doctor”.
This led me to wonder about other proverbs said by Japanese people which might be similar to the ones we use in English.
It turns out there are quite a few.
Roma wa ichinichi ni shite narasu
Rome wasn’t built in a day.
This one is literally exactly the same.
1 stone, 2 birds.
Same meaning as “Killing two birds with one stone”, only this time maybe the birds haven’t been killed, only slightly maimed.
Neko ni koban
Coins to a cat.
Have you ever given money to your cats? Did they know what to do with them? Nope… This one means the same as “Pearls before swine”.
The miso soup in front of you.
It’s annoying if a person goes on and on about how great their home-made miso soup tastes. The same as “Singing one’s own praises”
There are loads of proverbs that aren’t in English though
Uma no mini ni nenbutsu
A buddhist prayer into a horse’s ear.
There is no point saying prayers to a horse because he won’t understand what you are talking about. This one basically refers to a person who shows no sign at all of listening to what someone is telling them. It is also related to my favourite Japanese idiom, “Bajitoufu“. Which basically means in one ear and out the other.
However my favourite proverb is:
Saru mo ki kara ochiru
Monkeys also fall from trees.
This is basically saying that even experts can muck things up too. I have yet to find an opportunity to use this in conversation but when that day comes I will be a very happy man indeed.
Growing up in the 80s I clearly remember the options my parents got when we entered some sort of eatery. “Smoking or non-smoking”, they were asked. Smokers were generally placed in their own little room well away from me and my chips, or whatever I happened to be eating at the time.
Since the smoking ban in the UK, I guess such experiences are a thing of the past. I left England for pastures new before it was enforced but I remember discussing with my friends how it would be nice not to have to worry about all our clothes smelling of smoke when we returned from a night out. I guess we thought only having to worry about them smelling of booze instead would be miles better.
Whatever the results of the British smoking ban, eating or going out in Japan is like stepping into the twilight zone where everything is reversed. Smoking outside, where the smoke has limitless space to dissipate to, is frowned upon. Instead people smoke in special areas which, due to their placement near train stations, leads to a concentration of heavy smoke at station exits. You know, the kind of place where people usually wait for their friends.
As far as public places go, inside is where a Japanese smoker is expected to light up. As a result the question “Smoking or non-smoking” is still often said when you enter a restaurant, or at least it would be if people spoke English here. However it is different to my, probably rose-tinted, memories of the past. There are indeed smoking and non smoking sections but they are usually separated by nothing more than a screen. Sometimes it’s a screen which doesn’t even stretch along the length of a room. It’s as though people haven’t realised that smoke can go round corners.
As a result of all this, smoke often comes between my chips and my stomach. I get rather frustrated when I decide to go to Dotour coffee shop for my lunch break only to return to the office smelling of smoke. It’s not my favourite of smells.
Most of the time people smoking don’t bother me too much. I can deal with it and although I don’t understand the need to smoke, it isn’t the end of the world if someone on the same table as me sparks up. Recently though I was in a pub and the fellows on the table next to me were puffing away and I felt almost nauseous. They must have been smoking some kind of high tar concoction or something and I was just about to move tables when they thankfully got up and left. I guess that in my old age this kind of thing will have more and more of an effect on me.