Given that it’s Christmas, I’ve just cracked a frosty can of Asahi, popped Neville Marriner’s “Messiah” on the IPod dock and settled in to write for a bit on the laptop. Merry Christmas everyone!
Ask any Japanese where Santa Claus lives and the response is instantaneous: Finland. As with Halloween, the Japanese have embraced good old Saint Nick with enthusiasm. A few homes even have Christmas lights up. Rudolph, carrying a heavy load, is the only reindeer the Japanese are familiar with (I never much cared for the Teutonic Team of sleigh-pullers in any case). Rooftop landings do not appear to be a “go” here. Supermarkets have decorated trees and constantly play festive seasonal music. Gift boxes of various liquors, chocolates, coffees and treats are stacked high on display. In deference to the holiday, there are even half-chickens in the meat department. That may not seem like much to you but, in Japan half a chicken is a large and unwieldly cut of meat clearly desirable and available only on festive occasions. Despite the superficial similarities, Christmas is quite different in Japan: It’s an imported “entertainment”, innocent of the religious gravitas we are accustomed to here in North America. As you peruse those $15.00 melons in the produce section, pay a little closer attention to those carols wafting through the store. Lots of sleigh bells and Santa Claus but nary a word about mangers or silent evenings. Christmas trees everywhere; but not a creche to be found. I like to think of an imaginary Japanese “vetting committee”, approving those things they like about Christmas and utterly disregarding those things they don’t:
“This round yon virgin. What is round yon virgin?”
“It seems that crazy gai-jin believe that…”
“No! We go with fat man in red suit”!
But I digress…
Lesley suggested that I might write a little about shopping and it seems like a pretty good idea. I’ve previously written a little on the subject so I hope I don’t repeat myself too much here! There is a smallish mall called The Plaza not even a five minute walk from my apartment. Like most Japanese, I tend to buy groceries on pretty much a daily basis, so I shop there often. The cashiers in the supermarket recognize me and always give a welcoming smile.
When I had a mandatory physical health check recently, the doctor suggested that I’d soon reap the benefits of healthier Japanese diet. That seafood comprises a large part of the Japanese diet is clearly reflected in the size of any supermarket’s fish department. There are massive quantities of fresh and frozen seafood and even bags of dried finger-length fish. Fresh shellfish, octopus, cuttlefish, squid, herring, mackerel, and salmon (to name but a few) are available daily. The largest fish-market in the world is in Tokyo. On January 4th 2013, a perfect (for sashimi) blue-fin tuna sold there for 1.76 million dollars. One fish! A lot of money for a fish that was, little more than a generation ago, considered to be almost inedible, or at least, undesirable. But again, I digress…
Notwithstanding the health-giving benefits of a diet high in fish consumption, I’m not entirely convinced the Japanese diet is “that” much more salubrious than one from North America. Immediately upon entering The Plaza I find a pastry shop to my immediate left. Striding manfully past that, there is a bakery to my right within about thirty feet. A tad intimidating at first because you have take a platter and tongs and “load up” on your purchases. No big deal once you’ve lost the abject terror of living in a foreign country though! Quite apart from the sweet things, I like the panini’s, mini-pizzas and pastry encrusted sausages with tomato sauce. Delicious, but hardly lo-cal!
At this point, we pick up our shopping basket and enter the supermarket. We are greeted with a large section of pre-cooked meats and fish that have been deep-fried in panko. Again, very tasty but not particularly good for you. Look left and there is the relatively small “supermarket” bakery. A loaf of bread in Japan comprises about six slices, each of which is about twice as thick as an American slice. It’s white: It’s bland. Like “Wonder Bread”. Forget whole wheat, rye or pumpernickel. Don’t even dream about asiago! Ain’t gonna happen!
Spin 45 degrees and there is the liquor section of the store. This is where it gets pretty good. Sho-chu is probably the most popular drink in Japan. It is rice or barley-based, is served in a multitude of ways (straight, with hot or cold water and with club soda), and has an alcohol equivalent on par with wine. It is inexpensive and is sold in bottles or cartons that resemble Canadian milk jugs. Beer tends to be about the same price, more or less, as it is in Canada. It is also ubiquitous in vending machines on pretty much every street corner. Spirits (Scotch, Vodka etc.) tend to be far less expensive than in Canada. Possibly because they do not have a long and tedious Christian, finger-wagging history of condemnation, the Japanese seem to have no inclination to “punish” their citizens with onerous “sin taxes”.
Blink, and you will miss the breakfast aisle. Those long lines that include everything from oatmeal and granola to Count Chocula? Gone! Nada!
Similarly, (and I’ve mentioned this before), cheese is not a big deal in Japan. Little bland tinfoil-wrapped packets of cream-cheese. Meh!
The cleaning aisle? Everything is small! Dish-washing soap or laundry detergent; the packages are smaller.
The snack aisle rivals anything we may have in North America. It is huge and includes everything from lemon-flavored potato chips (awful), to dried fish. I’m fond of a combination of rice crackers, peanuts and dried green peas. Again though, this is hardly lo-cal food.
Moving along, we find ourselves in the produce section. It gets complicated. There are a whole lot of things we have not seen before. Vegetables that just seem a bit strange. Melons, grapes and even apples that, by Canadian standards, are quite expensive. Oranges and bananas seem to be the only fruits that are moderately priced. That’s ok though, I’ll write more soon.
I am off to Okayama tomorrow for a few days. It will be the first time I’ve left Niimi since arriving in late August. I’m looking forward to getting away for a bit!
I’ll post again soon!