So according to my girlfriend my attitude to Japan had been appallingly negative recently, so in an attempt to redress the balance of my “10 things I miss about England” here are 10 things about Japan that are so terrific that every other country in the world should adopt them immediately.
1. Various Flavours of Kit-Kats.
Kit-Kats are a wholly different thing in Japan. In England they are a relatively standard chocolaty treat consisting of wafer covered in chocolate. This straddles the line between exciting and dull so finely that it is nigh on the perfect biscuit. Nobody’s favourite biscuit, certainly but think of the sheer versatility of the Kit-Kat. It is equally at home in a lunch box, beside a cup of tea, on its own (certainly a rarity in the biscuit world) or comprising as the slightly more exciting part of an Easter Egg, a situation unheard of in the biscuit world outside the Kit-Kat.
Some evolutionary adaptations have occurred, notably the move down from the more individually satisfying 4 finger Kit-Kat to the more versatile 2 finger variety and the strange offshoot that is the Kit-Kat chunky which many biscuitologists argue is not a true Kit-Kat at all but possibly a variant of the Yorkie or Drifter that superficially resembles the more common Kit-Kat.
However, generally the common Kit-Kat remains a stable part of the British biscuit tin. Some more exotic varieties have been seen at times, principally the seasonal appearance of Orange Kit-Kats and the elusive Mint Kit-Kat but the population is overwhelmingly comprised of common Kit-Kats.
In Japan however the Kit-Kat has developed an enormous variety of shapes and flavours to fill every evolutionary niche. Japan is shockingly devoid of the Kit-Kat’s 3 normal environments, biscuit tins, lunchboxes and office vending machines and so the common or garden Kit-Kat is rarely at all glimpsed and has been supplanted by the white chocolate or “snow” Kit-Kat in almost all areas that one would expect to find the common variety. Furthermore the unusual habitat has forced numerous mutations in the size of the Kit-Kat, generating a pygmy species of 2 finger kits kats much shorter than one would expect and even a single finger kit kat small than 1 individual finger of the common 2 finger. Most intriguing of all is the propensity for 2 2finger kit kats to band together in packages that give the illusion of them being a 4 fingered kitkat. Such symbiosis is rare amongst biscuits and more properly reflects the behaviour of the garibaldi.
Furthermore numerous flavours have flourished here ranging from the rare vanilla bean flavour to the common but seasonal melon, strawberry, kiwi and chestnut Kit Kat. Indeed there is not just a variety modelled after (ume )or plum but a variety modelled after a type of cake flavoured with plum.
And that last one tastes bloody fantastic with a cup of tea.
2. Bento Boxes
Bento Boxes (or Obento) are basically a summary of the Japanese approach to cooking. Lots of little things. Whereas in the west mea and 2 veg and some kind of sauce is the standard in Japan its rice in one bowl, a little plate of pickles, maybe a few plates with some veg on it or tofu and then a plate with fish on it, possibly prepared in a sauce and misosiru (miso soup) to drink. Usually you then also have a separate plate for wasabi/soy/ponzu or any other sauces you are using.
Obento are like that except they’re lunchboxes with little compartments to separate ot the various bits. For examples my lunch today consisted of.
Spaghetti with tomato and bacon
Some kind of chicken in breadcrumbs
A spare rib
Some kind of Japanese style fishcake
A purple pickle I was unable to identify but which tasted lovely.
Potato salad with sweetcorn
A sort of hard set jelly tofu with sesame seeds sprinkled with fish flakes
Assorted veg in some kind of slime (which I ignored as I always do. The veg our Obento place does reminds me of my Grandmas) sprinkled with shredded hard tofu and deep fried tofu (which I did eat)
As with any food you can scale it up or down according to the desired fanciness. Our usual place does ‘em cheap and cheerful but its filling and tasty. But at Bunkasai we all got treated to a special Obento for free that contained rice sprinkled with fish and beef mince to form a contrasting pink, yellow and brown striped pattern, gorgeous tempura, unagi (eel) and other very posh Japanese foods.
Obento are simply awesome, easy to eat, attractive to look at and they provide a real variety in only one meal. They’re usually full of things that are good for you too.
3. Warm Coffee Can Vending Machines
By which I mean a vending machine which dispenses a small can which is both warm and contains warm coffee.
Now obviously all of you are thinking that you can already get coffee in vending machines in the U.K. However what I am describing varies in a number of regards.
1. Vending machines the U.K. are usually only found in some government
buildings, bus and train stations and in offices. In Japan they are
everywhere. In the city centre most corners have a row of vending
machines and nearly all of them will serve coffee. This means that
your access to coffee is greatly enhanced.
2. You may expect a coffee can to be hot and hurt the hands. In fact it
is warm to almost the perfect temperature, as is the coffee inside
it. Holding the can warms you through gently whilst the coffee warms
your insides. In the U.K. vending machines will dispense coffe at a
scalding temperature which is undrinkable until you have cooled it
down first, usually by swapping the cup from hand to burning hand.
3. It tastes nice. The cans are all mixed by major brands in Japan such
as Boss or Fire, in their factories and so have the same consistent
quality one expects of a soft drink. In Britain vending machine
coffee tastes of very hot water.
4. Syabu Syabu
Take a pot, fill it with flavourful stock and place it over a low heat. Chop up loads and loads of stuff, negi, onions, cabbage, mushrooms, beef, chicken, meatballs, pork, leeks, different kinds of mushrooms, fish, prawns, etc etc.
Then get friends to sit around the pot, present them with all your chopped up things and some chopsticks and sit down. You and your friends should immediately begin picking things up and dropping them in the simmering stock. Whenever picking up meat be sure to swish it in the stock and say “shabu shabu” in a fashion that amuses everyone.
Cook and eat until entirely sated.
5. Syabu Syabu Restaurants
Much like Syabu Syabu except
1. They do the chopping for you
2. They provide a wide variety of stocks including the mysterious thing
the English menu described as “addictive sauce”.
3. It’s usually tabehodai, or all you can eat. So replace “cook and eat
until you are entirely sated” with “cook and eat until you feel
nearly sick but dammit they gave you a box of beef each and dammit
you are going to eat all that beef if it kills you”
Tabehodai doesn’t actually mean all-u-can-eat in the sense that we’re used to it. Rather you rent a table for a set period and during that period you can eat as much as you like. At the end of that period you can either pay for more time or they kick you out of the restaurant.
But usually they a lot 2 hours and that is plenty of time to eat until you don’t want to look at food anymore.
And tabehodai isn’t just restricted to syabu syabu but can be enjoyed in a wide variety of restaurants. Japanese people love a gimmick you see and some of the many ways you can enjoy food in Japan are
Yakiniku – lit fried meat. You and your friends sit in front of a massive bowl shaped hot plate built into the table. Your host presents you with vast quantities of raw meat which you fry on the hot plate along with vegetables. Various sauces are on your plate for when you’re done cooking.
There is also variants of this which replaces the hot plate with a sort of fondu-esque bowl of boiling oil which you fry your meat in.
And even an all you can eat deep-fried yaki-niku. Bowl of boiling oil, container of batter, another container of breadcrumbs and food already helpfully on sticks. Get your food on stick, dip it in the batter, then the breadcrumbs, then the oil and learn what its like to be Scottish for the day.
This means all you can drink. That is for a small fee one may consume as much alcohol as one desires. You can’t see it really working in the U.K. can you? Normally this is a feature of the above mentioned restaurants, you can pay an additional extra to get all you can drink beer or chu-hi with your all you can eat meal. Like the meal there is a time limit when you have to relinquish the table. This is a fine thing and should be adopted by more restaurants.
However sometimes the same offer is open in bars. Pay a set fee for a limited amount of time (say 2 hours) for all you can drink. Usually this just covers beer and chu-hi but sometimes it covers certain spirits as well, sometimes it includes whiskey. This is obviously an evil thing sent by Satan to kill the poor helpless Brit who is suddenly faced with the overwhelmingly temptation to see exactly how much whiskey he can consume in 2 hours before either death or embarrassment occurs.
7. Japanese children.
At some point in the 1950’s a law was passed that forbade any Japanese person to give birth to a child that wasn’t diabetes inducing cute. Japanese people being very law abiding have dutifully stuck to this and thus every Japanese kid you see is so cute that they could and have made fully grown men (men I have seen running around forests with guns, men I have known to drink heroic quantities of nomehodai whiskey, real manly men, Scottish men, mean men, men of enormous height) say “awwwwwww I could just eat it up with a spoon”.
Even the fat ones are cute.
Scratch that the fat ones are especially cute.
The Japanese are certainly a bunch of hoopy froods who know exactly where their towel is, as typically they carry one everywhere.
Towels in Japan are not simply a device for the drying of one’s self when one is moist but an all purpose tool.
They come in a range of sizes from very small ones, about the size of a flanel, which are used to mop one’s brow or as a substitute handkerchief to enormous ones the size of 2 beach towels which presumably can be fashioned into a tent in an emergency.
The most common variety is roughly the size of a hand towel but thinner and twice the length, amongst its many uses are.
1. Worn around the neck in summer it stops the back of your neck being
sunburned and you don’t look stupid because everyone else is doing
2. It can be used to wipe up the copious amounts one sweats in Japanese
3. Tied around the head it becomes a sweatband.
4. During rain, worn on the head it helps keep your head dry. Even if
other people are doing this, and they frequently do, you always look
5. To cover the mouth and become a rudimentary filter in smog.
6. Folded up it becomes a pillow at concerts and other outdoor events.
7. Rolled up it becomes a weapon against evil Japanese deadly insects.
8. The Japanese all know some weird trick to turn it into a bag by
tying the corners. This is a traditional Japanese thing and thus
confounds me but it’s cool, cultural and useful so I intend to learn.
9. Folded up it can be used as a sort of cushion in the traditional
Japanese way of sitting.
10. You can dry your hands with it. Often crucial because toilets in
Japan usually don’t have hand dryers, towels or paper towels.
Presumably because everybody carries a towel everywhere.
Little balls of batter containing a bit of octopus tentacle. Much, much nicer than that description makes it sound. Especially sprinkled with ponzu sauce and negi.
10. Hyaku-en Shops
Hyaku-yen shops need to become a feature of all cities everywhere and soon.
Hyaku-en is 100 yen which is about 40p. Hyaku-en shops are the equivalent of pound shops in that everything in the shop (with a few exceptions) costs 100 yen.
Here is the twist, hyaku-en shops are full of very, very useful stuff.
Amongst the things I have bought from them are
Glasses, plates, knives, forksm spoonsm chopsticksm cooking chopsticks, bowls, all the cleaning supplies I ever use including bleach and washing up liquid, headphones, speakers, lunchboxes, very sharp cooking knives, chopping boards, pans, wrapping paper, toys for use in teaching, towels, hangers, a suit cleaner, brooms, mops, torches, batteries and a metric ton of storage racks.
You can buy bras for god’s sake, BRAS!
And its all decent stuff easily the equivalent of going to wilkinsons or woolworths for it all.
I will sorely, sorely miss them when I move home.