Conveyer belt sushi restaurants are popular. This one even had a dispenser for your plates, which counted up your total bill (you pay by the plate).
- taiyaki -- one of my favorite foods here. It is a pancake filled with sweet red bean paste.
- traditional Japanese breakfast at a ryokan (Japanese inn) I stayed at in Atami (hot spring resort town).
- Mikan picking in Atami. Mikans (mandarin oranges) are a very popular fruit, esp. in late fall.
- onsen omiyage (hot spring souvenir gift) -- it is customary to purchase your friends and coworkers an omiyage (gift) when you travel. I bought some of these red bean paste filled pastries in Atami. They have the Japanese character for onsen marked on them.
- An izakaya meal in Ikebukuro in Tokyo.
JAPANESE FOOD IN GENERAL
I absolutely LOVE the food in Japan. It is amazingly delicious nearly every time. Taste, quality, and presentation are all important. Overall in comparison to the U.S., I would say Japan has a lot more vegetables, fish, and rice in their dishes and uses less sugar. Additionally, desserts, turkey, and cheese are far less common here.
Some of my absolute favorite Japanese foods include: sushi, sashimi, taiyaki, mochi, katsudon, sukiyaki, eggs in general (they're more flavorful and have a much oranger yolk here), udon, terayaki chicken, edamame, nabe, yakitori...
Some of the foods I don't care for include natto (sticky/stringy fermented soy beans), pickled plums, and wasabi.
STUDENT CONVERSATIONS REGARDING FOOD
Many of my students enjoy asking me about Japanese food. They seem particularly happy when I know the names of different foods and say that I like them.
Interestingly, just last week after I was answering a student's question about which Japanese foods I enjoyed, I reversed the question and simply asked, "What food do you like?" He responded in turn by saying, "Junk food." Now, in all reality, I do not think junk food was actually his favorite food. But after I had just rattled off 10 or so of my favorite Japanese dishes, I think he was trying to reciprocate the sentiment and offer that he enjoyed American food. As has been my experience in a few other conversations, sadly I think many people here may view all or most American food as synonymous with unhealthy eating.
Also, when I go out to eat with students, some of them seem surprised/impressed that I know how to use chopsticks. Their reaction frankly surprises me a bit, because why wouldn't I know how to use chopsticks if I were living in Japan? My only reasoning for it is that people seem sensitive here to how I, as a foreigner, view and integrate myself into Japan. Either that, or they are trying to be nice and give me a compliment. I'm not really sure which.
Because I cannot read Japanese, grocery shopping has been an interesting experience. Slowly, I'm learning more and more about what different foods are. However, for the most part, I buy foods that don't require instructions (such as fruit, vegetables, bread, dressings, pasta, frozen foods, etc.) or packages that have English or diagrams.
The very first time I went grocery shopping after I had moved into my apartment, I almost cried in the store. I love sushi and was planning to make some on my own since finally I would have easy access to all the ingredients. I had found my favorite ingredients: tuna sashimi, avocado, seaweed, and rice. But, I could not figure out where the sushi flavoring packets were. So, I thought it's okay, I can make my own sushi flavoring with vinegar, salt, and sugar. I had some sugar in the apartment that the teacher before me had left, so I just had to get vinegar. But, after seeing that there were 5,000 clear bottles of liquid on the shelves, of which had nothing but kanji to inform me of their contents, I admitted defeat. It was so frustrating to know that the ingredients I needed existed in the store, but that I didn't have the language skills to access them. I didn't have a dictionary on me either, so I couldn't ask anyone for help.
Meanwhile, it turned out the grocery store had two floors, with these bottled liquids, canned foods, etc. being located on the 2nd floor and the refrigerated and produce sections on the 1st floor. Therefore, I didn't necessarily shop in the most logical order and the ice cream I had picked up as a special treat had melted by the time I finally gave up and checked out. The store clerk asked me if I wanted it exchanged, but I also didn't really understand what she was saying at first either. Eventually I got the point and indicated it could be switched, but I definitely felt like the dumb foreigner with about three people in line behind me -- not only could I not understand what the clerk was saying to me, I wasn't even smart enough to know to put the frozen goods in my cart last...
The first time I bought soy sauce here, I was in a 100 yen store that had a small grocery section. I looked up the word for soy sauce in my pocket dictionary (shoyu), and then picked up a bottle that I thought looked like soy sauce (which it indeed was). I went up to a woman nearby, and said, "Sumimasen, shoyu?" ("Excuse me, soy sauce?"). She gave me a very uncertain stare and an ever so slight head nod. I think maybe she wasn't exactly sure how I wanted her to respond, since I didn't really form a proper question, she didn't work at the store, and probably my pronunciation was off too. Ha. :) But, I remember feeling very satisfied, nonetheless, to have found soy sauce. I've since learned how to read hiragana (one of the Japanese alphabets), and shoyu（しょうゆ）is actually written on the bottles in hiragana, so I can read it now.
I bought a small oven from one of my coworkers when she left Japan in October. One of the first creations I wanted to make was a long-time favorite of mine, baked oatmeal. So, I bought all the ingredients and spent at least a good hour chopping apples, mixing things together without an electric beater, greasing cupcake tins, and pouring the oatmeal batter into the tins. While I was doing this, some spilled onto the tray, so I scooped it up and just ate it. However, it tasted very wrong. I tried some more and then it hit me: the cup of "sugar" I added was actually salt. Cursed illiteracy. I don't know why I had been so certain that I bought sugar -- I just had spent a while analyzing everything around the "sugar" package in the grocery store that when I finally made up my mind that the bag was indeed filled with sugar, I didn't think to check once I came home. Since then, I always taste test. And in fact, the "powdered sugar" I bought to make frosting about a month later turned out to be flour, but I didn't mess up everything that time. I've also now taken to carrying my dictionary with me in the grocery store when I know ahead of time I want to buy a new ingredient, so I am able to compare kanji in the store.
Anyway, despite some of the above experiences, I actually have really enjoyed the food I buy here. Back in September, my mom asked me about what I ate, and below is my response:
Sept. 25, 2007 e-mail to Mom
I cook for myself sometimes. I also eat out a decent amount. The food here is delicious. So far, cooking for myself has been going pretty well. I have been buying healthy food and have been pretty happy with the variety. Sometimes it is time-consuming to cook. I convinced a few other people at work to do meal sharing, so one or two days a week, someone else brings in lunch for me. :)