This is a lesson I learned the first time we came to Japan.
Japan can be pretty overwhelming just from a cultural perspective… having such a large population confined to such a small space means that the Japanese have evolved a unique kind of consideration for those around them.
As Americans, we have a completely different concept of personal space, volume, and courtesy that makes us stand out before anybody notices our different appearance. It takes me a couple days to get accustomed to the difference, so that I don’t feel like I’m the loudest breather in the world’s most crowded library.
Needless to say, I have enough to worry about without identifying whatever the heck this is that I’m about to put in my mouth.
It’s not that the food here is unsafe by any means. If anything, this is probably the safest place to branch out and try new things. The Japanese are so fastidious that I don’t worry about getting sick like I would in Cambodia or Kearny Mesa. It’s just that they do so many interesting things with food, that if I ask “What is this?”, there is quite literally no translation other than, well, “edible.”
Because when they do attempt to translate, the results often don’t.
Flying in to Tokyo and transferring to the train, travelers don’t have a lot of time to stop for a sit-down restaurant where they have English on the menu, or at least pictures. Fortunately, there are a multitude of vending machines dispensing just about anything you could possibly imagine.
Because I ate breakfast before flying in, I’m much better equipped to be adventurous because I have no vested interest in being able to finish whatever foods I’ve won in the Japanese vending machine lottery.
However, once you get past the strange and actually start trying things, you’ll experience some of the most wonderful food you’ve ever encountered. Take, for example, the first food I pictured: okonomiyaki.
Elsewhere in the world, you’ll see this called “Japanese Pizza”, but I think of it more like a Stu Surprise pancake. Wheat-flour-and-egg-based, you basically add whatever you want to the pancake base. Yakisoba, vegetables, tofu, seafood, meats, whatever. I took a risk and ordered the house special okonomiyaki and ended up with squid, octopus, bacon, pork, beef, scallops, and shrimp.
Because I’d ordered one with so much meat, I got a double-portion, and a face that said “all right gaijin, see if you can finish this.” There was some kind of sweet soy-based sauce and mayonnaise drizzled on the top, but all the flavors together were so good that I had no problem finishing up every last bite. And half of Tiff’s.
I had flashbacks to the last time I was in Japan, and we were at lunch with one of our tour guides in Kyoto and I kept going back for more yakisoba. By the third bowl she said “Wow, you really like yakisoba!”
Apart from strange things, if you stay in a hotel geared towards westerners, the food you encounter will be familiar in some ways, and blow your socks off in others.
Because arable land is so limited in Japan, farmers can’t just plant more crops to earn more money. They must differentiate themselves in other ways. In most cases, they’ve done so by ensuring their quality is top-notch.
For the famous Kobe beef, this means carefully guarded feed recipes for very specific breeds of cows, or even playing soothing music or massaging them to ensure they lead low-stress lives (they say stress ruins the flavor of the beef).
In the case of fruit, if there is even the slightest defect in any of the fruit produced, the whole plant is ripped out on the spot.
The result is that even the crappy buffet fruit they serve is better than anything you’ll ever have in your life. The really nice fruit is given as gifts for special occasions like the birth of a child. This might be three perfect strawberries boxed in silk for a hundred dollars or so.
I’ve had some great strawberries in my time (thanks, Jackie!) so I can’t imagine what a $33 strawberry must taste like.
But overall, the takeaway is that eating in Japan is a thing best done enthusiastically, and the best way to get that enthusiasm flowing is to avoid starting on an empty stomach.