So you’ve made it to Japan. You’ve left the plane, passed through immigration, convinced customs that those weren’t the droids they were looking for, and you’re officially a gaijin.
So after you get over the taxis with the SKYNET smart doors, smack your forehead a couple of times into low hanging door frames, and check into your hotel for your training; you’ll have to begin the long road of learning to live in a foreign country. Here are some pointers and insights to help you through the transition.
Be careful where you party
I’m not talking about avoiding places that don’t serve foreigners. I’ve never seen such a place and I probably wouldn’t be turned away anyway… I’m talking about partying efficiently. If you love bars/pubs then you’re used to spending plenty of $$ for a night out on the town. As for me, I was used to Kansas house parties and hot co-eds crowding around my keg-o-rator I kept stocked with Boulevard Wheat. When I did go out, my drinks were usually on the house or set over by groups of giggly farm girls.
Japan is connected by trains and the major cities will have large train stations full of stores and restaurants. Tokyo has lots of very large stations. Your training period won’t be in some little hick town, mine was in Tokyo, but Fukuoka, Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, and Shizuoka are also popular training locations. Cities of that size will have decent sized main stations that are central locations that make for good landmarks for meet-ups.
A general rule of thumb is to avoid drinking at the station. Or if you want to drink at the station make sure your party is subterranean. Basement level establishments at the station and/or places that are 1-2 blocks away from the station have much lower rent and are much more affordable places to drink away your inhibitions or at least drink until that one chick with the dragon tattoo jumps from a 4 to a workable 7…
Sure, washboard abs, forearms that look like steel cables wrapped in skin, and a dark wash pair of jeans paired with any high quality wool top will show everyone that you have a gym membership and a subscription to GQ, but if you want to really impress a bunch of brand new gaijin then be a little prepared.
Don’t be that douche that knows everything about everything and won’t STFU about it. But keep a little notebook and write down some different foods you’d like to try. Then when you’re out and everyone is ordering off the pictures in the menu you can try something you’re actually interested in trying.
Two things you’ll want to ask about are nomihodai’s and tabehodai‘s. A lot of different restaurants and even karaoke joints will have a nomihodai option. It’s all you can drink from a limited drink menu, usually draft beer, red & white wine, and a few different types of sake. Yakiniku restaurants will often have a tabehodai option, which like the nomihodai, is all you can eat from a select menu.
Buy old sushi
Supermarkets typically close around 8:00 p.m. Around an hour before they lock their doors, all of the prepared food they have left-over will go on sale. This includes all bento boxes, onigiri, and sushi & sashimi. If you wait to shop then you can save a ton and still eat like a king.
I used to buy bento boxes with assorted foods for around ¥270. I bought shredded crab over rice for around ¥450. Boxes of sushi dropped down between ¥300-600 depending on the contents.
This, and raiding the local vegetable gardens is how I survived my first year in Japan.
Japan has 2nd hand shops that make the thrift stores I shopped at in Kansas look like… well… like thrift stores you’d expect to find in the middle of Kansas.
They’re called “Recycle Shop” and like you’d expect of Japan they’re clean, safe, and meticulously maintained. The electronics work, the clothes are clean, and the porn is… well… plentiful.
Shopping at a Dollar Tree in America is a mission to actually find something worth a $1… one that usually ends in failure unless you place a higher value on plastic harmonicas and bubble wands than normal people… The Japanese relative of the dollar store is the aptly named “hyakuen” which just means “100 yen.”
Now ¥100 shops are actually ¥105 with tax, but they’re still great places to get office supplies, hangers, dishes, eco bags, cleaning supplies, slippers, etc. It’s actually difficult to not find something that would in some way improve your life in Japan.
I always recommend getting on the National Health Insurance. If you work for Interac they’ll recommend a 3rd party international insurance company called Global Health Insurance. Japan doesn’t recognize this company. You’ll have to pay all costs up front in full, save your receipts, and then file more paperwork to get reimbursed. Being that I hate paperwork I opted to get onto the National plan as quickly as possible.
Now the National plan is based off of your salary from the previous year. As you are new to Japan, you did not collect any salary last year so there is next to no price difference between Global and the National plan. However… your second year in Japan your insurance rate will probably double, which turns some people off to the National plan, but you should still probably get on it.
Japanese companies are required by law to either provide company based insurance or enroll their employees in the National Health Insurance. How dispatch companies and English schools skirt around this I’m not sure, but there are plenty of angry bloggers who have already discussed that issue.
The thing that I want you to be aware of is if you’re in Japan for a long time and using a 3rd party international insurance and then want/need to switch to the National coverage, you’re up a metaphorical creek of excrement without any means of propulsion or steering… You’ll be expected to make back payments for those years you’ve been in Japan not paying for any health insurance that Japan recognizes. Now there are ways around this, or at least I’ve heard rumors of people who have been able to dodge the bullet, but again… that’s more work than I want to do.
I could go on and on about tips for living in Japan. But being dervishly witty and a humorous rake gets old after a while…
If I’ve made any mistakes or your experience has been otherwise please let me know. If you have any other hints that might help the 新外人, then please let me know!
People ask me about Japan. I’m at a bit of a loss of what to tell them. It’s Japan for starters. “What is the culture shock like?” Well, it’s like doubling up “the different” in a move from New York to West Virginia I suppose. I guess Japan is pretty different, but in the end it’s a place full of buildings and cars, with people inside those buildings and cars, with blood and tissues inside those bodies.
It is a little strange how I can silently blend into any crowd if I want. It’s not like I got many strange looks in a crowd of white people in the states, maybe in Kentucky or West Virginia a little. I don’t get slammed for looking Asian by anyone at least. There’s no one who mimics Chinese-eyes when they pass me on the street. No one has thrown rocks at me here. I’ve not heard the terms gook or chink at all here.
This is like our “N-word”
But there is a gap that exists between myself and the Japanese people. I guess it could be the cultural gap, or the language barrier, or separate prejudices. I’m not sure what it is, but it is at times as invisible as feelings while other times it is as strange as fashion and as glaring as driving west before sundown. It’s varied from person to person, but not so bad that you’d notice too much. Of course they have preconceived notions of what an American is, fed mostly by, surprise surprise, marketing images and celebrity spreads.
The chopstick question seems to have taken the burden as the poster child for subtle social clashes that has probably happened to every single foreigner who has ever lived in Japan. In fact it happened to me before I even came to Japan. It was sometime after I graduated high school, maybe I was 19 at the time.
High school was something that breezed by for me. I played some baseball, went out with a lot of blonde girls, saw too many shitty movies at AMC, studied infrequently, and passed with a 4.54 weighted GPA. I made hardly any friends aside from girls that wanted to get to know me a little better and kids from my churches youth group, half of which who probably saw me as some sort of charity case. After I transferred from Kentucky, I spent one year taking my lunch to the school library where I read running magazines and random books about Aztec history. The second year I did pretty much the same thing. The third year I spent half the year eating with some Korean friends a year younger than me, Michael and Jason, until for some strange reason I became popular and then I ate with mostly blonde girls and artsy people.
or artsy blonde girls!
After I graduated I sort of regretted my limited interaction with Asian people for some strange reason. I can’t put my finger on why, but something in me changed, as subtle and small as tectonic plates moving a few inches, but as violent and upsetting as a fucking earthquake on the surface. I had a friend named Sang who was always interested in hanging out with me, but I’d never made time to because I’m horrible with scheduling stuff. For some strange reason I’ve never had a shortage of Asian guys that want to hang out with me and while no Oriental girl has ever asked me to hang out with them, I did have a small group of them that I would catch following me around in high school. So, I called Sang when I was nineteen and he took me to a Korean restaurant with a few friends.
I wasn’t asked the chopstick question directly. Not like here in Japan. It was really just one of the girls half-surprised, half-complaining who said, “Look, he can use chopsticks better than me.” I guess the difference was they all spoke Korean, had Korean parents, and have been using chopsticks at home at least as frequently, if not more, as they use a knife and fork. I wasn’t really upset by the statement. And I’ve never been upset by any Japanese person asking me in Japan. But I can understand how it can rub things the wrong way.
The kids in kindergarten are all using chopsticks, I’m a grown-ass man (or woman) of course I can use chopsticks. Is probably what they’re thinking. For the most part they’re mistaking just friendly conversation, reading too far into it and getting hurt. I’ve never straight up asked anyone if they can use chopsticks. If you are eating with them it’s something you can usually tell fairly quickly. And for the record I don’t use chopsticks correctly. At least not Japanese correct, thought I don’t know if there are different styles. But I am extremely good with chopsticks with either hand, and yes it makes me feel superior. And while I’ve never asked if someone was proficient with chopsticks I have made fun of people for not being very good, or at least noticeably terrible, but that’s just the sort of person I am. Besides if you can’t make fun of yourself you probably aren’t too friendly with me.
In all fairness a lot of Americans probably can’t use chopsticks. But to be fair to the disgruntled gaikokujin population here it is relative common sense that persons coming to a foreign country would at least familiarize themselves on that countries most basic culinary practices. I’ve heard a lot of questions from Japanese people, I’d guess over half of them over foods, weather I’ve tried them, heard of them, or are even capable of eating them. It’s partly because it is easy to ask those sort of questions. It is partly because they are obsessed with food.
So what is Japan like? What are Japanese people like? Well, they’re people pretty much. They’re pretty polite, they like traditions and long ass ceremonies for anything of significance, their television is loud and repetitive, the girls are cute, the guys are skinny, the trains are convenient, the 7-11’s sell sushi, the cities are busy, the towns are sleepy, the mountains are green and the oceans have fish. In all places I’ve lived; Red Bird, Tampa, Man, Bradenton, Sarasota, Largo, Corbin, Overland Park, Lenexa, Manhattan, San Diego, Fuji-shi, and Sue-machi; I have discovered that I don’t really care where I live and I have trouble answering simple questions that people really just want me to answer simply.
So I’ve been asked to talk about what it’s like being Asian in Japan. I don’t really know how to answer that so well, because I’ve always been Asian in Japan. I can’t really compare it first hand to being something else in Japan…
I guess the biggest advantage is that I can blend in. As long as I’m quiet no one pays attention to me and as my Japanese improves I can even keep my cover through simple conversations. When I’m with my more ethnically diverse friends, and in Japan that means whites, blacks, Hispanics, middle-easterners, Indians, and everything else, I do notice that people tend to stare. Now maybe they’re staring because they’re not used to seeing someone tall. Or a lot of foreigners are very muscular, or at least more muscular than your average Japanese person, big muscles are very interesting in Japan. Maybe you dress funny, or your shirt’s tucked into your underwear or you wear your cell phone on a belt clip. I don’t know, but if you’re different you’ll draw some stares for sure. Not from everyone… but probably most people, at least a glance. Maybe a stare or an ogle. I do get stared at sometimes, but usually it’s from groups of Japanese girls… no clue why…
this happens way too often…
I don’t know how difficult it is to do things in Japan, because most things, like legal things are taken care of by either Yuuki or one of her family members.
I have no proof but I felt like, when I was applying for teaching jobs in America, that applicants that looked more gaijin were given some preference, but I have not proof of that, its just how I felt at one of my interviews.
One thing, I can’t break into TV roles. All the TV roles that go to Asian looking people go to Japanese people, and the gaijin roles in commercials and TV shows go to more gaijin looking people, but I’m not really interested in that stuff.
I auditioned for both roles…
I have the luxury of taking my Japanese name and slipping into Japanese society without anyone batting an eye, and I kind of like that.
I’m the second one on the left…
I do have one funny story. I was doing an interview for a Japanese news program. They have a spot in their show where they introduce a foreigner living in Fukuoka. They ask questions like, What food do you like here? Where do you like to go? What do you like to do?
When I showed up to the interview, they looked at my name and looked at me and of course my American name didn’t really match what I look like. So they asked me where I was from and I told them “America.” They looked confused, so I quickly followed up with, “But I was born in Korea.” They looked relieved or something, they smiled and said “Ahhh, sodesu ne.” and then wrote, “KOREAN” next to my name in their notes…
The main train station in Fukuoka is called Hakata Station. Hakata is an alternative name for Fukuoka, and really causes lots of confusion. While most stations in Japan are named after the city, like Tokyo Station, Yokohama station, Kyoto station… Fukuoka’s train station doesn’t match the city’s name. Go figure.
My friend Patrick has documented more extensively about this phenomenon in such great length I can’t finish reading it before getting distracted by something else.
Living in Japan has given me a whole new appreciation for the seasons. In Japan there are a lot of very season specific things we do and eat. Most of it is very new to me.
I grew up in Florida for the most part. Basically America’s Australia, Floridian seasons differ about as much as the ethnicity of Abercrombie & Fitch models. Sadly the state that I spent my 2nd longest residency was Kansas. I moved there around Christmas in 2000, (Merry Fucking Christmas, right?), but easing the blow was the fact that I was moving to Kansas after a year in Kentucky. I try to block out as much of Kansas as possible now, but from what I can remember… Summer was blisteringly hot, temperatures would push around 103°F (39.4°C, that doesn’t as bad, stupid metrics…).Winter was cold as fuck, -2°F (-19°C, that sounds much much worse…) I remember one time school was canceled because it was so cold the school buses refused to run, that’s right, the machines that run on burning petroleum products said it was too ball-freezing cold to do anything but sit motionless at home. Fall and Spring were pleasant, but the simple fact that about 50% of the year sucked you’d have to be a glass-half full sort of person to like living there, which I’m not thank the good Lord… (Or British)
For reference, I live in Fukuoka Prefecture in Japan. It’s the northern most prefecture on the large southern island of Kyushu. We’re at about the same latitude as South Carolina and Northern Morocco.
Fukuoka… and no, it’s not pronounced like you wish it was.
Summer in Japanese is “natsu.” Summer-time means you eat watermelon, grapes, cold soba noodles, and cook meat outside.
You go to the beach.
Summer is nice.
There are festivals and girls wearing yukatas.
Yukata means “bathing clothing”
In the early morning I go fishing at the river next to my house. I wear my jimbei and sandals to the go shopping and draw strange looks from the natives because only Yakuza walk around like that on everyday errands. The thermometer hits about 38-39°C on the warmest days, but I have no idea how hot that actually is.
There is also Obon in August. It’s the time dedicated to pay respect to the dead. You carry little paper lanterns while burning incense while you walk to the graveyard. You clean up the family graves and bring fresh flowers and mochi, sticky rice balls, for the hungry spirits. Families come home and spend time with each other, I see it as a little like Thanksgiving in that regard.
Fall in Japanese is “aki.” Aki is a popular girls name, typically coupled with -ko, which means child. Fall is the best fishing season. We eat Japanese pears, which are far superior to the western counterparts, and persimmons which the Greeks considered the fruit of the gods.
= crazy delicous. Cronic what?
We celebrate Oktober-fest at gaijin-bars and drink Belgium brewed beers that have high alcohol levels. There are fireworks festivals, more girls in yukatas, and more festival foods.
Ninjas also don’t get to drink on the job. Advantage pirates…
We start going on more trips to the onsens, hot springs and taking scenic trips to buy locally grown produce from neighboring prefectures. The latter half of fall is the beginning of crab and oyster season, which is cause for more celebration.
Winter in Japanese is “fuyu.” It’s not so cold in Fukuoka. There are maybe 3-5 days when we get a dusting of snow. It never really sticks or anything so you don’t get to make snowmen or snow penises or whatever you make out of snow. Again, because of metrics, I’m not sure how cold it really gets, but if I run around naked outside I start to shiver and girls tend to wear more clothes (T_T)
I’m convinced that Japanese women are impervious to cold from the waist down.
Food in the winter is hot and delicious for the most part. We eat a lot of crab.
I mean a lot of crab…
Christmas isn’t really celebrated. Christmas Eve is a popular date night for young couples. Japanese Christmas traditions don’t involve any trees usually and very few presents if any. People do eat “Christmas cake” and KFC, through a long running marketing campaign, has made chicken a popular Christmas dinner. I’m not a big fan though, because they charge about $50 for a slow roasted chicken that you could get for $10 at Costco (Costco Japan, btw).
The big holiday is New Years. The big event on New Years for me is making mochi. It’s accomplished by smashing rice with large wooden mallets which seems fun at first but doing it for 6 hours sucks. We also eat some strange foods like sea slug and pufferfish.
I’d like to I say stowed away on a merchant vessel from the West Indies or brought my mongrel horde down from Mongolia or commanded a sperm whale to carry me from the coast of California, but as usual the truth is much more mundane.
Like any great story this one starts with a girl and an attraction stemming from a mutual appreciate for chaos and war. We met in the Amazon jungle one summer. She was tracking jaguars that she was taming and shrinking to sell as house pets. I was barehandedly fishing for full grown tiger fish when I rescued her Tarzan style from a crocodile and a bull shark that had formed an alliance of evil together. It was magic, we sailed six of the seven seas, ate walrus with the Inuits, hang-glided over eastern Bagdad dropping beanie babies and ketchup packets to give them a taste of what western democracy could do for them.
After a midnight raid of the Louve where we replaced priceless works of art with xeroxed posters of Stephen Colbert, we exchanged Facebook invites and we realized that we were both attending the same school in the middle of Kansas. How had we missed each other for the previous two years? Well, my underground fight club kept me fairly occupied most of the school year and she was busy triple majoring in molecular science, alien linguistics, and pole dancing.
The whirlwind romance continued, followed by a tearful goodbye after graduation and a promise to keep in touch.
After I watched her board the plane back to Japan, and not caring that I was crying in public I realized two things. I loved that little Jap and she still had kept my only copy of Van Wilder. I had to have them back!
To escape the tornados and Midwesterners who were oddly proud of their vast stretches of nothingness, disbelief in science, and limited vocabulary that made their ridicule of Mexican and Canadian immigrants highly hypocritical, I packed my bags and took to the Oregon Trail.
The real Oregon Trail is nothing like the game. If you’ve never traveled across western Kansas and eastern Colorado then imagine a small hill with tall grass. Then imagine traveling at 60mph for about a day looking at nothing except clones of that little grass hill. There are no buffaloes to shoot, there’s no squirrels, no rabbits, no bears. You can pick off a cow easy enough, but in real life carrying back 200lbs of meat is no small feat, so you cut off a few strip steaks and see if you can return nine hundred and ninety-eight bullets at the next WalMart you find or trade them with an Indian for more wagon tongues.
None of us died from Typhoid fever, snake bites, or broken arms. We did take the wrong trail at one point when our GPS got confused by the high altitude around Vail; and I did get projectile diarrhea after eating at a Carlos O’Kelly’s Mexican Café in Hays, but what can you expect from an Irish owned Mexican restaurant… I came out of the TEXACO restroom and my companions all said,
“Matt has dysentery.”
After the Rockies the scenery changes to scrub brush and large wind cut rock structures; again copy and repeat. It gradually transitions to desert and then there’s Las Vegas like a shiny watering hole in the middle of fucking nowhere.
Vegas has lots of neon lights, crying drunks, loose high school graduate co-eds, guys trying to date-rape loose high school graduate co-eds, and miniaturized world landmarks. Pizza is expensive, the lobbies are loud, and hookers will haggle as they sit on your bed refusing to move. Broke and bored at the end of the night we tore pages out of the phone book and sailed paper airplanes from our penthouse window into the glowing neon night. The hooker called us cheap [homosexuals] and left.
California is beautiful as long as you’re at least five miles from the ocean. You get too far away from the Pacific and you’re living in the goddamn desert.
I bought a used surfboard from a local. On the water it transformed into some sort of missile that shot me across the waves briefly, before violently tossing me into foam and froth while bronzed bikini girls giggled and watched. We made bonfires on the beach, drank Corona with lime wedges, and used strange new words, like “bra” and “stoked” and old words in new way like “epic” and “sketch.”
Between the red sunsets, pink desert sunrises, and trips to the beach while listening to TV on the Radio I went on four job interviews for teaching positions in Japan, because really I came to Cali for the interviews right?
I went to my NOVA interview one month before the company declared bankruptcy.
It was by far the easiest interview. I took an overnight train to San Fran the night before the interview, and slept in an empty row of seats.
After a shot of espresso, I wandered into the interview groggy and incoherent. A hot thirty-something brunette in a pencil skirt and a turtleneck gave us a little presentation about Japan and gave us a joke of a psychological test. The whole thing felt more like they were trying to talk us into some sort of pyramid scheme while at the same time screening us for sociopaths. Afterwards they checked if we had pulses and then offered us teaching positions in Japan.
At the time my goal was to get to Japan by any means necessary. I had done little research at all on companies and wasn’t aware that current NOVA employees were dressing in pink bunny suites and picketing to get paid.
After securing the NOVA job offer I went off to visit my lady in Japan and reclaim my DVD.
While I was in Japan this happened:
And by the time I got back from Japan the company that had offered me a job was gone and dismantled. I had my DVD, no job, and a sad little girl across the sea. (I also left my copy of J.D. Salinger short stories in her bathroom. Damn!)
I redoubled my efforts to find employment in Japan. In the meantime, I worked at Bloomingdales convincing rich women I could speak French as I sold them $1000 watches and sweaters for their tiny gay dogs. I also racked myself really hard on a wipeout and traded in my surfboard for a long skateboard, (fuck ocean).
My second interview was in LA with AEON, which is fairly similar to NOVA except not bankrupt, but just a douchetastic.
I took a Greyhound bus with a bunch of poor people to LA. The Greyhound station in LA I recognized from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. In the game it’s the place you go to shoot migrant laborers for fun. (It’s kind of a fucked up game.)
The interviewers were two men this time. One was a short thin Japanese man. The other was a tall chubby blonde man with a bit of a northwestern accent. There were only four of us interviewing. Derek had gelled hair, wore glasses, and looked stoned. Drew fidgeted and was so unremarkable I passed over him when I was introducing myself before we started the interview. And A.J. was black.
Then there was me in a clean suit, Tommy tie, and smile that had earned me my own fan club in high school, but I was asian.
It was painfully obvious that from the start of the interview that we weren’t what they were looking for. Derek was too stoned. A.J. wasn’t white enough. And I was too Asian. I got the feeling like they were just going through the motions of another day at work without even considering hiring any of us. Where the NOVA interview had been casual, fun, and flirty, this one was cold, calculated, and dreary.
Oh yeah, Drew was too plebeian or something. I keep forgetting about him, his name wasn’t even Drew, fyi… I just can’t remember it now…
They gave us short little simple English tests that a 5th grader could have done while playing Wii Sports. We each had prepared a mock lesson as a presentation, which we gave using our fellow interviewees as students. The two interviewers talked about Japan and their company with bored sounding voices and they often stared out the window. When we raised our hands they’d keep talking until we gave up asking questions. I should have got up and walked out because they were being douche bags, but I held onto some sliver of hope that it was all an act on their part to see how we’d respond to people who are total tools.
They sent me a letter the next week saying “Fuck you, try again.” I called them asking what went wrong with the interview, if there was any particular reason I didn’t get the job. They told me once again to fornicate with myself and said that the information was confidential. I pissed on the letter and told the mailman there was a mix up and had it returned to the senders.
ECC has a long ass test at the start of the interview. It’s one hundred questions split into different sections covering grammar, spelling, and three other categories I don’t remember.
Was it difficult?
Was I nervous?
If my sixteen years of public education, English Literature Diploma, and narcissistic personality wasn’t enough to prepare me for a test over basic English comprehension then I probably wasn’t as awesome as I thought. But even though I rode on an overnight bus for twelve hours before the interview and hadn’t been asked to identify a gerund since middle school, I aced their little test in twenty minutes and then took a nap.
There was a mock lesson for those of us that passed the test afterwards. The sixteen of the original twenty that was left was divided into two groups and we gave our demo lessons for the group. My interviewer-observer-person was a silver haired Japanese man. I volunteered to go first in my group, so I could have the pleasure of watching the other applicants’ faces as they realized how much more talented I was than they. I launched into my lesson with games and songs and dance, lights, smoke, and enough CGI to make the Phantom Menace look like accidental byproduct of a Q-basic code. Not five minutes into my lesson the Japanese man smiled and clapped his hands and told me, “That was excellent. That’ll be enough.”
The mistake the other applicants made, aside from being in the same room as me without planning ahead and ordering some extra awesome for that day, was that they did their little lessons, but stopped when ‘they’ felt they were finished. Not when they were told to stop.
They would stop talking; look around with hesitant glances like a deer entering a meadow looking for bears. The Japanese man would ask, “Ummm, are you finished then?” They’d laugh nervously and nod.
The last part of the ECC interview a one-on-one interview. By this point I knew I was set. The interview questions were all pointed to the obvious: “Where in Japan do you want to live?” “Which is your favorite Sailor Moon character?” “You’re terrific, why haven’t I heard about you yet?” “Is there some sort of handsome cream you use or what?”
On the way home from San Francisico on the 2nd and final time I would ever ride a Greyhound for that long, ECC called me and told me they absolutely had to have me.
The INTERAC interview took place outside of LA. I rented the crappiest car I could find, which turns out in San Diego is a PT Cruiser.
The INTERAC interview consists of a personality test, a video taped self-introduction followed by a videotaped demo lesson that’s super short, and a one-on-one interview.
I had Yuuki write out my self-introduction in Japanese. The demo lesson was just to prove I could form English sounding sentences without vomiting on myself. The interviewer was a plump little twenty-something girl from Pennsylvania. By the end of short interview we were both laughing obnoxiously and she told me I was a pleasure to meet and she would recommend me for the job. I may have told her at some point that when she smiled it was like little bits of sunshine were leaking out, which seemed cheesy at the time, but I’m sure no one had ever told her something like that before. Looking back now someone with sunshine leaking out of their frigging face seems rather terrifying.
I wound up taking the job with INTERAC because they had better hours. I still get sad little emails from ECC as they continue to cry about their loss.
Any time you move someplace new there will be new customs, new traditions, and new foods that may seem strange because you’re not used to them. America has it’s own fair share of strange and unusual shit that to a foreigner would seem kind of fucked up like Ranch Dressing, Velveeta cheese, tripe, Sarah Palin, and Dane Cook.
Japanese food is for the most part delicious. There’s a lot more fried food that I’d expected, a lot of food served on a stick, and a lot of food that’s from centuries old traditions. Japan is also the country that loves eating raw sea creatures, gave us Godzilla and Pokemon, and is responsible for the lap pillow, which is a pillow in the form of the severed lower torso of a woman that is marketed to lonely sociopaths.
Now to be fair, the entrails of pigs and cattle are eaten in many countries including America, which is why this only ranks at number 11 for me. In America it is soul food for some. In my family we didn’t even speak about it least we jar my mother’s nightmares about old German cuisine her mother used to make for her that included the brains and intestines of various barnyard critters.
If this was a story about the scary shit my mom has told me about we’d be here for much longer probably and I’d be further in debt to my therapist, but fortunately we’re focusing on Japan here.
Horumon has two possible meanings. First, it sounds like “hormone” and indeed it’s associated with building stamina. The 2nd possible origin of the word is the combining of the Japanese words horu which means “to throw away” and mon which is a form of mono which means “thing.” Yes, the name for this food literally means, “Shit we throw away.”
I’m told by my girl friend’s father that horumon is a new food. They only recently developed the technology to make the intestines of a cow edible enough to eat. I imagine this means they finally invented some sort of steam cleaner for animal innards. It’s prepared in a marinade of soy sauce, sugar, crushed red pepper, and other various spices. It’s one of the few foods that they bother marinating too.
Verdict: If pressed into a point where there is no other option I will eat this. I try to picture a starving orphan child somewhere with a distended belly to guilt me into not grimacing.
The texture is like chewing a piece of blubber that never tears, never gets smaller, and continues to send little bursts of fat into your taste buds until you swallow it whole. The marinade tastes just fine, but it’d be just as good if not better on some food that doesn’t require specialized technology to clean it up enough to be considered food.
If you visit Japan and love chewing on the digestive parts of animals that at some point are directly connected to cow anus then order some horumon. Be careful when you cook it over an open flame though, because so much fat drips from it while cooking you have to constantly deal with grease fires.
10. Chirimenjako (ちりめんじゃこ)
This is a sort of fish dish. And by fish dish I mean mass fish infanticide. The little fish fry that make up this dry chewy dish are typically sardine or anchovy fry, they’re dried and salted. Chirimen comes in varying consistencies ranging from soft and delicate to tough as leather. It’s eaten a variety ways; sometimes with spices, sometimes sweet, sometimes as bar food, sometimes with just soy sauce, sometimes mixed into other dishes without your knowledge.
It’s a little strange eating school lunch with your students and something gets stuck in your teeth. You pull it out and it’s half of what looks like a tiny fish. Upon further inspection of your food it’s apparent that what you thought were coconut shreds is actually hundreds of tiny white fish carcasses.
Verdict: A lot of gaijin don’t like chirimen, but I enjoy eating this in pretty much any form. My favorite is with a glass of cold beer with grated daikon radish mixed in. I like to imagine I’m a shark and hum the Jaws theme while diving headfirst into my bowl. I suggest you do the same.
Oh the carnage!
9. Awabi (あわび)
Abalone is considered quite the delicacy here. It’s strange prehistoric half shell structure makes me want to pretend I’m a prehistoric shark, but as a shellfish it’s not that strange despite looking like an alien vagina from the bottom up.
No, the reason awabi makes it this high on the list is how it’s prepared. There are multiple ways of eating it, as sushi, boiled in soy sauce, swished around in boiling soup, cooked with boiling rice… the method of preparation I’m singling out here is the yaki method or bbq method.
A living awabi is put shell down on a metal grill that’s over a charcoal fire. The doomed creature quickly becomes uncomfortable, but out of water turning over isn’t an option. However, it tries really fucking hard. So we all sit around it while it writhes in the agony of being cooked alive. Meanwhile, as we watch we’re whispering, “Oishisou,” (you looking fucking delicious) and occasionally pouring soy sauce or sake or beer or butter over its smoking body.
Verdict: Meh. This is an expensive food. A full grown awabi that’s the size of my hand will run about 3-4000円 (around $40). It has very little flavor and its texture is rubbery. It doesn’t taste bad, but for a lot less cash and a lot more flavor you could opt for some clams or any number of delectable bivalves.
As far as animal cruelty you get your money’s worth. If there’s an expression sea creatures have for holy shit agony I’m pretty sure this is as good a show as any. The only thing that could possibly top this is a similar method I saw on TV used to cook an octopus. The octopus was held down with a pair of long chopsticks while it tried to escape. But this is a list of foods I’ve eaten 1st hand… if I catch an octopus then maybe I’ll come back and revise this list…
If you have friends who are Japanese and they invite you to a bbq then drop by the fish market and pick up an awabi as a gift. It’ll go over really well with them at least.
8. Torafugu (とらふぐ)
Not all pufferfish harbor enough deadly toxins that can kill 30 grown men, some have no toxins at all. So why do we eat the poisonous ones? Because why the hell not it seems. I’ve always been impressed with the bravery of early presidents of the Taste Me Club. (note: the adult Taste Me Club has nothing to do with the one you were coerced to join as a child, but much more fun for adults…). With all the different types of mushrooms, frogs, pinecones, and animal intestines the founding members of the Taste Me Club were short-lived badasses who probably needed a hand truck to cart around their massive balls.
There is a famous Japanese poem that translated reads:
I cannot see her tonight.
I have to give her up
So I will eat fugu.
Yes, apparently fugu was romanticized in Japanese literature as a poetic means of suicide. Death by pufferfish is caused by a deadly tetrodotoxin to which there is no real antidote if too much is consumed. It shuts down your body, but leaves you conscious as your friends gather around you to go through your pockets before the ambulance takes you to the hospital to die. The deadliest of the fugu is the torafugu, or tiger fugu, which is the most sought after species for some strange up reason. It’s believed that eating the blowfish will grant you good health, power, and virility providing you survive. (Kind of like combining Russian roulette and Viagra?)
Fugu has gotten a lot safer now to eat than in olden days. There are very few fatalities and for unlicensed people to prepare the fish is a crime. The strange thing is, as the fugu becomes safer to eat, it’s loosing some of its prestige in Japan. I think Japan needs to become heavily introduced to MMA or Halo as alternative ways to blow off steam.
Verdict: This is an expensive dish. We throw a fugu party every New Years and it runs around $100 a person. At yakiniku I pay extra to cook my own food. At the fugu party we pay extra to hope the dude that gutted our fish was having a good day and wasn’t trying to quit smoking cold turkey or had Parkinson’s…
This fish has very little taste. The sashimi is sliced very thin and is crunchy. The soup tastes like soup. The fried fugu tastes like a fried white fish.
After eating it I didn’t feel extra virile or extra healthy. I was able to command the allegiance of sentient sea creatures and convince hot women to go skinny dipping with me, but I could do that ever since I shook hands with Bob Ballard in 8th grade. It’s worth eating it once for the fear factor, though these days the only people you’d impress are people who aren’t Japanese, or poor Japanese who can’t afford to eat like a king.
7. Ika ikizukuri (イカ活き造り)
Ika is Japanese for “squid.” Ikizukuri means “prepared while living.” You do the math.
If you enjoyed killing the awabi while whispering to it that it looked delicious, here is the opportunity to level up. Let’s make it clear. The squid really looks like it’s still alive by the time it hits your table. (Though scientifically speaking it’s had all of it’s innards removed, I don’t know if squids can live without all that stuff.) Its skin is still attempting to change colors as either a last ditched attempt to camouflage itself or more likely the mixed up firing of its fucked up nervous system currently overloaded with the pain of being freshly gutted and diced up into a bite sized pieces. The legs of the squid still feature fully functioning suction cups that will grip the platter when you try to pick them up and continue to suck furiously after you pop it in your mouth while flipping off it’s still animated eyes with the double bird just because you want to be a douche. After you’ve eaten a fair amount of the body, the restaurant will often take the still moving remains away to be battered and fried.
Verdict. Often times I’ve wondered to myself if there was a food I could enjoy while eating it in front of the still conscious dying animal. Well problem sovled!
Overall raw squid is low on my list of raw foods to eat, but I generally make an exception here because it’s not expensive, maybe $15, and screw squid and other high functioning cephalopods. It’s very fresh, obviously, and is honestly the best way to eat raw squid. (As long as you don’t care about karma…)
6. Mentaiko (めんたい子)
This little delicacy comes to Japan from Korea and is famous in Fukuoka where I live. The name comes from the Korean word for pollock, “mentai,” and the Japanese word for child, “ko.” It’s pollock roe served to you while still in sitting in the ovaries of their long dead mother.
The most popular form of this is spicy mentaiko. The recipe differs depending on the preparer, but it involves marinating the egg filled ovaries in chili, sake, seaweed, yuzu or vinegar, maybe a special soup stock. It is eaten raw typically with rice or in onigiri, but is sometimes it’s cooked in the microwave, baked on top of bread, and tossed in pasta.
Verdict: If eating raw marinated fish eggs doesn’t sound like something you’d willingly do, then this might not be the dish for you. It’s not bad and when compared with eating white rice plain, then I’ll take the spicy fish egg topping everytime.
Quite a few of my friends will not eat this though. Something about the ovaries maybe, or the little popping sensation as you chew through thousands of aborted fish just seems too Japanese to them.
I recommend trying it though. They’re spicy with a lot of savory flavors that presently surprise you. And you can pretend you’re the shark version of Jack the Ripper.
5. Natto (なっとう)
Typical reaction from foreigners.
This is a very Japanese food, indigenous to the country and if you know anything about Japanese food then you were probably waiting for this one to come up. It’s gained a lot of infamy in the gaijin circles, replacing earthworms as the go to “I dare you to eat this…” food.
A brief history lesson as conveyed to me by a very drunk oyaji (old man) in a small sunaku (Snack, a popular type of private bar where hot girls are paid to sit and talk to you and serve you alcohol). A long time ago some soldiers were boiling some soybeans to feed to their horses. They get attacked, so they packed up their beans in straw and ran away. A few days later they remember their horse food, so they unpack their straw packs to find that the beans have fermented and look rather strange and smell rather strange. Naturally they put the strange stuff in their mouth and being that it’s war and their last meal probably consisted of some frogs and grasshoppers they enjoy the flavor. Voila! From horse food to Japanese soul food natto was born!
The first time I tried natto I spit it out and told my Japanese girlfriend and her family they could all go to hell. It smells like the gooey stuff you find in the back of a high school gym locker that was probably once a yogurt cup and a jock strap. As far as consistency goes it’s like chewing on soft beans drenched in snot that’s had some time to congeal.
The second time I was offered natto was with my students as part of a school lunch. I tried eating it, but only got about half my cup down in the allotted time and the 15 year old girls gathered around and asked me how went on living without testicles.
The 3rd time I made the student next to me eat it.
The 4th time I was ravenously hungry because I had skipped dinner the night before as well as breakfast that morning for perfectly innocent reasons. I groaned when the natto came out, but I still scarfed it down like Oprah unleashed in a Krispy Kreme or really hungry African children thankful for any food at all. Ouch, my conscience…
Verdict: If you read my pleasant description and think that’s something you’d put in your mouth then I need to reevaluate my writing. I have heard people describing eating it is akin to eating a very pungent cheese. I don’t know what Swiss hole they crawled out of, but let me make this absolutely clear… Natto is nothing like any cheese you know of. To even associate something as fantastic as cheese with natto should earn that person a bitch slap every time they even pass the dairy section at the grocery store.
Now, the kicker is I will eat natto willingly. I don’t go out of my way for it except for that one time… but it’s passable as food for me and apparently is super healthy. I don’t really care about the health factors because apparently anything that tastes like crap is immediately healthy for you. Natto is an acquired taste, yes, but you should try some because it’s part of the Japanese experience. Yes, I wouldn’t eat it if it hadn’t been forced upon me on a regular basis my first year in Japan, but I did it and so can you!
4. Basashi (馬さし)
I realize that horses are beautiful and majestic creatures. They’re seen as work companions and friends to some (or part of the reason Scrubs Med School sucked so much). I have several friends who are into equestrian activities and will probably not speak to me for even discussing this, and to them I will apologize. I’m sorry Pam and Ann.
To be fair to me, when I ate it, I was told it was “pony” by my girl friend’s drunk uncle. And since when do we give a shit about ponies? They aren’t really useful for much besides toting Lembras bread for lazy hobbits and being what young girls fantasize about before they become interested in boy bands.
Ba means “horse” and sashi is a shortening for “sashimi.” This is eating raw horse. To be fair to Japan, realize that horse is consumed in much greater quantities by other godless countries like China (#1), Mexico (#2), Kazakhstan (#3, really no surprise after watching Borat), and Italy (#6, again no surprise).
Now, basashi refers to the red meat of the horse eaten raw. While it feels slightly like eating a dog to me (which I HAVEN’T done), it’s not totally unlike eating beef tartar, which I do guilt free. The reason horsies rank as high as number 4 on my list is because I’ve also been convinced to eat raw horse liver, like this:
Cow liver isn’t that great, and I’ve eaten that raw; it has a strange aftertaste to it. And raw chicken liver and raw fish liver aren’t too bad either. Horse liver, actually had less of an aftertaste than cow, but it was more difficult to eat simply because of the amount of blood there was left on my chopsticks afterwards.
Verdict: If you’re squeamish about eating horse, eating liver, or having blood on your eating utensils then for god’s sake don’t eat horse liver sashimi.
If you’re interested in any of those things they give it a try. It’s not an expensive food or difficult to find. Kumammoto prefecture is famous for its horse meat and sad little girls who like ponies.
3. Odori ebi (踊りエビ)
This can be translated as “dancing shrimp.” In the event that watching your awabi suffer horribly as you watched with anticipation, or if prying your squids tentacles off the platter as it clung on to the last bits of life by watching you consume it’s appendages, if that wasn’t enough to satiate your twisted desires that are just south of a full fledged dining sociopath, then this is the meal for you.
Let me paint you a picture. Perched on a rocky shore is an onsen (traditional Japanese bathing house). You wash your body while watching the waves break against the stones below. The air smells of salt. A light fall drizzle begins to fall, cold little pricks on your body still steaming from the hot bath. Toweling off you go to your room where tables have been set up for a wonderful meal. They bring out fresh red snapper sashimi, small sea snails cooked in a sweet soy sauce, crabs the size of your dinner plate and small little covered bowls. Curious you lift the cover off the bowl and are greeted with a pair of large shrimp resting in a light saline and sake solution.
Verdict: I’ve always enjoyed fishing. But having to literally kill my own food that periodically attempts to escape and prepare it myself isn’t something I look forward to when I sit down to eat. The shrimp were pretty spry still. Occasionally one would jump up out of the bowl and then try crawling off to hide underneath the empty discarded crab shells.
To prepare them you have to break them in half separating the tail from the thorax section. Rudimentary knowledge of shrimp anatomy is helpful here. Then you have to peal the shell off the tail before you are able to finally dip it in soy sauce and wasabi and enjoy it like the little monster you’ve become. If you’re fast enough you can even finish as the head is still trying to crawl to safety and like the squid earlier you and treat it to the double bird remix style.
Bottom line, I love shrimp, even certain types of raw shrimp, but this experience traumatized me. Not so much killing and dismembering shrimp, but the way my girlfriend did it with a cold distant look in her eyes as she told me what she would do to my manhood if I ever tried to leave her.
2. Namako (ナマコ)
There are two common names for this sea critter in the English language. One, would suggest that it could indeed be considered edible, the other would suggest it might be some type of aquatic garden pest. For the sake of shock value let’s do away with the name sea cucumber and from here on out we will refer to namako as sea slug…
Not a lot of people I know would pull one of these cuddly little guys out of the water and instantly think of popping it in their mouth. But indeed, in China they eat quite a bit of sea slug in a dried form, which I have never tried. In nature, sea slugs remain generally low on the list of things hungry sea creatures eat. Part of this is thanks to excellent camouflage; part of this is thanks to the fact that the skin of most is lightly poisonous and not tasty.
Of course in Japan we eat them raw.
This is a food that’s eaten as part of the traditional New Years food. It’s sliced into half centimeter thick slices and served in small bowls with vinegar, soy sauce, and crushed red pepper. It’s got a slight aftertaste and is slimy, soft, yet dense at the same time making it difficult to chew.
Verdict: Why did we become the default natural predator of some brainless sea creature that literally no one else wants to mess with? Just goes to show that nothing is safe from a hungry Japanese person.
When it was served to me I looked at it and thought to myself, this looks like a pile of cut up sea slug. I asked the Japanese people what it was and they told me namako, but aside from its Japanese name they didn’t really know much about the creature.
If you are unlucky enough to be offered this you can be polite, try a little nibble and then smile, cock your head to the side and when your host says, “amari?” just shyly smile and nod your head. They’ll laugh, you’ll laugh, and you won’t have to touch it again. Or you can be rude and tell them you don’t eat shit that looks like demon poop.
1. Shirako (白子)
Lets play a game.
Shira means “white.”
Ko, if you remember from mentaiko, means child or children.
What food could “white children” represent?
Figure it out?
You think you know?
Well, if you guessed sperm then you’re right! Congrats!!!?
Sperm from a cod fish, (hopefully the actual fish, not the former captain of the Jolly Roger and nemesis of Peter Pan), is readily available in most izakaya bars in Japan. Typically it’s eaten raw with some soy sauce and citrus.
I think as a westerner I’m sexist when it comes to what I’ll put in my mouth. I’ll eat chicken eggs, salmon eggs, pheasant eggs, pollock eggs… but tell me to put some sperm of anything in my mouth and I balk. Call it homophobic if you will, but eating seminal fluid doesn’t fit into my manly persona.
But wait Matt! Isn’t this a list of strange foods you’ve eaten in Japan?
Fuck… walked right into that one… Yes. I have eaten it. And Yes, I looked at it and asked the women I was with, “What is this?”
They replied, “Shirako.”
“What’s shirako?” I pressed.
They held a little conference amongst themselves and after much discussion they claimed, “We don’t know. It’s from a fish. Fish eggs.”
Hmmmm… I thought to myself. White fish eggs? When most of the fish eggs I’ve eaten have been of an orange or pink or blackish color? And the name… I understood that it meant “white children.” Still against my better judgement I ate some of the flavorless white goop. The girls broke out in a series of little giggles that sounded like sparrows.
“Do you like it?” they asked me grinning.
“Meh, not much flavor,” I answered honestly.
“Is it delicious?” they pressed.
At this point it was painfully obvious that I had just eaten a load of some fish’s jizz. Stupid little cute Japanese girls… I directed the conversation back at them. “Well, to make things clear this is the first time I’ve ever eaten it. But it looks like you ladies have more than a little experience swallowing this stuff?”
Okay. So if you are a woman, or if you like eating sperm, or if you are open minded, then shirako is something you should definitely try. If you’re cornered and have to try some on a dare or to impress your boss or something, then just loosen your jaw, think about Denise Richards in Wild Things and… gulp!