In Praise of Cooked Food, Knives and Forks

I returned from a trip of 18 days in Japan last Friday. I don’t think I will return.

In that time, I lost around 4 kg of, admittedly, unwanted weight. It wasn’t entirely due to the extra miles / kilometres that I walked – but was definitely down to the fact that my system and, more importantly, my taste buds simply rebelled at raw tuna, prawns, crab and other stuff that, normally, I thoroughly enjoy…

… cooked.

Although I have a reputation for being a fussy eater, no one can accuse me of just turning up my nose. I did try every single thing that was put in front of me. I got so hungry by Day 4 that I was tempted to find a MacDonalds. Just how low can one get?

I know America spent time in Japan – an uncle was a US Marine who did a two year stint in that country. I had hoped that they might have taught the Japanese how to cook bacon – Americans certainly know how to cook that delicacy. Alas! If they did – the Japanese have certainly forgotten. So even breakfast, my favourite meal of the day, was severely lacking.

To add to my woes – apart from the hotel in Tokyo (start) and Sapporo (end), not one hotel provided coffee in my room. Still – I managed to buy both a jar of coffee and some sugar from a Convenience Store purely by ‘sign language’.

Then there were those instruments of torture known as ‘chop sticks’. The hungrier I got, the less able I was to pick up food. I did, eventually, ask for a fork or a knife and was handed one wrapped, discreetly and almost shamefully, in a serviette…

Three cheers for the unknown Italian who invented the fork in the 14th C.

Food and trying to eat apart, the trip was interesting. Our guide, who was with us for the whole time, was very informative – and answered all our questions quite freely. Some of her comments, especially about the Ainu, left us rather speechless.

While, on one hand, I admire the way that I felt Japan made little or no concessions to the outside world – I did think that if they wanted my tourist dollar they should at least make acknowledgement of the fact that not many people speak or read Japanese.

The museums I visited were technologically brilliant – they could teach the world a great deal. Massive amounts of information – all in Japanese…

… and virtually nothing in any other language.

Still – been there – got the T-Shirt. But will not return.

28 thoughts on “In Praise of Cooked Food, Knives and Forks”

  1. Well I must admit they would have to pay me a lot of money to go near the place. (And then I wouldn’t go!)
    Eating at a sushi restaurant here in Bellingham was the last meal I had before being carried off to hospital with raving diverticulitis, Excessively painful and permanently diet/life changing. Now all slant grub is totally banned from the house. Spousal unit is very fond but it makes me want to vomit just thinking about it, let alone seeing it or smelling it.
    I always had the impression they really didn’t want foreigners there, baked fried or boiled. Interesting that they NEVER take any refugees from anywhere do they? No international body gets on its hind legs about it either! Why haven’t they had their statutory 25,000 Syrian ragheads issued to contaminate their culture?
    Personally I will never get past their performance in Singapore in WWI. I knew several families that were there. Truly horrific.
    What about New Zealand next time round?

  2. I am sorry you did not like Japan. I have been there a couple of times on business and though on both occasions only made it to Tokyo, I thoroughly enjoyed the little I saw. As for their cuisine, sushi is probably my favourite food in all the world and something that I have always felt that I could eat till it came out of my ears. It certainly takes all types.

    Funny that you should mention the invention of fork. When I was small child my parents took me to watch the film Beckett, with Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole . There is a scene when Beckett invites Henry to dine with him and try out a new invention, an eating utensil called a fork. Unless the producers were employing an element of artistic licence, which I admit is very possible, the fork was invented well before the 14th century, though Italy definitely seems to be the origin.

    Look at minute 12.40 and again at 29.40

    You must forgive me, I have a degree in smartarsery.

  3. The Japanese hand you the fork/knife/spoon in a serviette as a sign of respect. They’re generally a discreet lot.

    Personally, I adore Japanese food. It’s not all fish! I often go weeks there without eating anything of the sort. It’s a matter of knowing where to go and how to go about it. In that respect, Japan is more challenging than other countries. It’s very much a self-contained island civilisation. It absorbs, adapts and evolves without ever losing its core sense of self. I admire it, especially seeing how most of Europe has become a pathetic train wreck.

    You are correct about their English skills — or lack thereof. They learn everything by rote. They gauge what they know through standardised exams, not practical use. The Japanese learn how to read and write, but not how to speak or comprehend. In many cases, they learn using katakana, not the Roman alphabet. “good night” becomes gudo naito. Lovely becomes rabaarii. Many Japanese are utterly terrified by the idea that they will lose face by having to speak English so they avoid doing so at all costs. It’s not a problem for me, really. I speak Japanese. But I know it can be unnerving. In this respect, the Taiwanese and Chinese are far easier. They’re far more confident people and are also franker. They will see it as your problem that you can’t speak Chinese but will, so long as you’re suitably humble and contrite, be more than cooperative.

  4. Good evening, Boadicea.

    A fine rant and most enjoyable.

    Until I reached ‘I had hoped that they might have taught the Japanese how to cook bacon – Americans certainly know how to cook that delicacy.’

    Not my experience, other side of the Pond-wise. Most of the bacon that I have ever had the misfortune to crunch State-side has been cremated strips of indifferent streaky which have usually stuck in my craw, especially when drenched in maple syrup.

    Not, to be fair, that I have very much time for ‘furrin’ bacon of any sort, be it called ‘pancetta’, ‘lardons’ or whatever. Give me back bacon, preferably from Ayrshire or Wiltshire. Middle seems to have died the death in consumer terms but I used to enjoy that as well. Streaky is also OK when not subjected to the Joan of Arc treatment.

    In my opinion.

  5. JM: I know of a butcher shop in California. People sometimes drive 70-80 miles to buy some of their roasts. Their bacon is brilliant. It is a bit on the fatty side, most bacon in the US is, but it’s very well seasoned. It comes from locally-raised pork and they do everything in-house. You can find some of the worst food in the developed world in the USA. Let’s not start on the coffee and tea. At the same time, you can find some of the best, too. I spoke with a Dane not that long ago who worked in the food industry. He said much the same. The mass-produced products are lacking, but the locally-sourced and the top-grade can’t be touched.

  6. Boa, I visited Japan on business a few times – and thoroughly enjoyed spemding time there unaccompanied. I admit to asking for instructions at the hotel before venturing out but succeeded in navigating anonymou streets and even the metro. Non-tourist restaurants communicated by showing me what they recommended and always supplying cutlery. On one occasion I had the luxury of a personal guide – which opened up vistas of fascinating details. It’s a shame you didn’t find Japan so pleasurable.

  7. Janus: A number of Japanese restaurants have automatised ordering. Just press a button with a picture and pay. It will print a ticket that you give a server and they’ll bring you your order.

  8. Many thanks for the comments!

    Christina To answer your question about ‘refugees’. I quote from our guide, who I have to assume gave us accurate information. She said that last year some 2,000 people applied for refugee status in Japan, and only 6 or 8 were accepted. She also added that she was very ashamed of that – and she clearly was.
    Like you, I also have strong reservations about Japan’s behaviour in the WW2. I did rather get the impression that anything at all controversial is glossed over.

    Sipu I did not say that I didn’t like Japan – only that I wouldn’t return. There are still far too many places I want to see and my time is severely limited. I am amazed that you would consider Hollywood’s version of history as being ‘a true account’- surely you know better! Just as a pointer – try thinking of Henry II as one of the best kings England ever had – and Becket as a b**y pain in the proverbial…
    A degree in ‘smartarsery’ is fine – as long as your facts are accurate!
    I will admit that the humble fork was indeed around long before the 14th C. But it was introduced into Italy sometime around then, and from there into the rest of Europe. A wonderful invention that allows the diner to stab their food and, with the aid of a knife, cut it into reasonable sizes for eating.

    Christopher I’m not quite sure how handing me a knife in a serviette is a sign of respect – but it’s an interesting concept! I think I said that I admired the desire to retain a sense of identity – and I suspect many Europeans would applaud them. However, erecting barriers by their impenetrable language in the museums did not allow me to understand their culture.
    I didn’t think that any one of the Japanese I spoke to in English felt ‘terrified’ by their lack of English – they just smiled and did the best they could – and it all worked out brilliantly!

    JM Glad you liked my ‘rant’. Clearly thee and me differ on what constitutes ‘Good Bacon’! You just might have enjoyed the Japanese Bacon, which appeared to have been steamed rather than fried – although it was all streaky!

    Janus It wasn’t so much that I didn’t find my trip enjoyable as that I had trouble with the food and in understanding what I was looking at- even with a guide. There were only 15 people in the group – all very well educated, knowledgeable and curious. I just wish I could have understood more of what I was looking at.

    In General
    I visited a number of cities. I saw no beauty anywhere – just utilitarian blocks of sky-rise buildings. Even travelling through Japan, the number of houses I saw seemed to me to be simply places where people lived and nothing more.

  9. Boadicea: The Japanese generally serve things wrapped. It’s more discreet. They also give chopsticks wrapped. It also means that they don’t handle it with their hands which is seen as cleaner.

    The Japanese are not accustomed to this many foreign visitors. Their museums, etc. are set up for Japanese visitors. To be fair, the V&A, British Museum, etc. are also terribly maladroit at displaying information in languages other than the impenetrable English. One reason why Japan has a relatively low emigration rate is that Japanese struggle to cope in non-Japanese societies simply because they’re so accustomed to everyone being on the same page and knowing what to do.

  10. This is an ideal site to consider the treatment of ‘foreigners’ round the world. We have all experienced the idiosyncracies of other societies. I don’t mean as tourists – that’s easy to explain – but as would-be neighbours or work colleagues. Of all the places on my list, Japan is by no means the least comfortable. That would be Austria!

  11. Janus: Austria and Switzerland, both. An argument could be made for Norway, too. They’re very clannish societies. Those from outside the village won’t easily be accepted even if they’re from the same country. Even those who come from the same village won’t be fully accepted if they don’t toe the line. The Japanese exist in their own reality, but they’re not generally pig-brained or malicious.

  12. Christopher: Don’t get me wrong – I will not return to Japan because, quite simply, I am starting my travels rather late in life and there are so many other places I want to see – and I have a limited time in which to do so.

    My comments on Japan were as an outsider looking in. You have the advantage of living there and coming to understand, and empathise with, the way of life. I suspect my brother who visited with a Japanese friend and came to understand more than my cursory look gave me will be quite short with some of my comments – only far less politely than you have been! I haven’t yet had the courage to tell him that I didn’t find it as amazingly wonderful as he thought I would.

    I certainly did pick up that everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet – and I’m sure that it can lead to a very easy way of living. So I’m not at all surprised at your reasons why Japan has a low emigration rate. But, I really struggled to understand how historical events (and not the atrocities of WW2 which, of course, were never mentioned) that I did know about could be presented as ‘peaceful and harmonious’, non-existent or swept over.

  13. Boadicea: Ha. I wish I lived in Japan. I’m in England where I have to wait over a month to see the dentist even though I have three holes in my teeth because fillings broke. They refuse to take me in any sooner or to even note what the issue is before I see them in person.

    During the Second World War there was a difference between the Japanese civilian population and the Imperial Japanese Army. Japan is an isolated island country. At the time, they controlled Korea, Dongbei, Taiwan, etc. There was no way that contrary information was going to come into the country with any ease. In Germany, there was at least the proximity of free Switzerland, Sweden and the United Kingdom from whence information could be transmitted. The Japanese didn’t even know what happened until the war was over. There were some Japanese who tried to protest, but they disappeared. It doesn’t take more than a few prominent people to go pink-eye for the general population to stop asking questions. The Imperial Japanese Army went so far as to hurl civilians off cliffs in Okinawa to make a propaganda point. In Asia, people try to cover-up what they don’t find desirable. Koreans won’t acknowledge that they were very willing to engage in atrocities under the Japanese flag. In China, the government glosses over the damage that Mao caused the country. In India, there’s an entire industry dedicated to blaming the British for their multiplying woes. That they might be responsible for many of their own problems hardly earns a mention. When one Indian writer dedicated a book to the British Empire in a sardonic way, he was persona non grata for years. The ignorance of younger Japanese is pitiful, but we’re not doing so well in the West, either.

    When I was last in Osaka I visited Osaka Castle. They fully acknowledged the role of that site in Japan’s aggressive military policies from the Meiji through Showa eras.

    As for liking or disliking Japan… Japanese cities aren’t the best in terms of aesthetics. Most buildings in Japan were made of paper and wood. Japan has so many earthquakes that stone and brick structures are dangerous and unstable. When Japan was fire-bombed during the war, the damage was even worse than in Europe because fires destroyed absolutely everything. They had to rebuild post haste, as in Korea, so they didn’t have time to worry about aesthetics. Since then, the Japanese have been focused on safety and efficiency. Traditional Japanese buildings are beautiful and they’re around, but you have to know where to look. Japan is not everyone’s taste. It takes a lot of time, effort and patience to start to understand it. I’ve been sitting Japanese lessons for consistently for 8 years now. I am still far from fluent. If I had dedicated my efforts to learning European languages, I would have learnt 4-5 by now and to a far more fluent degree. Yet… For me, Japan is worth it because of the sublime, a sublime which lingers in spite of the ugly post-modernity that abounds.

  14. Is that a NHS dentist?
    Suggest you go privately, NHS dentistry always was rudimentary at best and that if being bloody polite about it.

  15. CO: It’s a private dentist that works with NHS. The landlady recommended them and she has very good teeth. I’ll do what needs to be done at the moment, but will try to schedule the more serious things to be taken care of in California.

  16. CT, I am your your demtist has two lists – private and NHS. You are clearly not private! Change lists! Get sorted! 😷

  17. Actually it is never a good idea to go to a dentist that has both private and NHS lists. Techniques are very different and a dentist that has NHS patients where the techniques are not allowed because the state will not pay for them means that the dentist is not so adept at doing them!
    Much better to go to a private only practice.
    I agree Janus that this is what is happening here. I would suggest asking some well heeled looking patrons in Waitrose where they go. Good way of finding any service needed, surprisingly people never seem to mind being asked if one goes about it the right way. Generally the same name starts to surface after a few enquiries.

  18. CO: I took a dentist that is currently accepting new patients. The private only dentists are full-up. Their ratings are fairly good, though, so as a bridging measure they’ll have to do. I regret not having this done last month.

  19. I know! One moves somewhere and doesn’t bother to find one until absobloodylutely desperate!
    I had to fire a good dentist here, bloody religious maniac, fucking Mormon, who felled the most magnificent mature walnut tree because it dropped leaves on his car!!! I gave him a piece of my mind in no uncertain terms, pointing out that ‘dominion over the world by religious nutters was not a license to destroy it!’ I place a ritual curse upon him every time I pass his premises.
    Then, of course, I developed an abscess within minutes, (minor hyperbole) No bloody dentist! Fortunately a mate is a peridontic surgeon who sorted it for free immediately, thank God for him! He made me acquire a dentist too, not before time.

  20. PS I have noticed that there is a distinct shortage of dentists in the UK, heavens knows why.

  21. CO: They tend to conveniently forget the portions of the Bible that demand “wise stewardship” and not taking more than needs to be taken and not harming anything. I wholeheartedly support your decision to cut him down to size. I trust he was 3 inches tall when you were done with him, 10 gallon hat included.

    There are shortages of doctors of all sorts throughout Europe. The dentist I have here is from Poland. My GP is from Egypt. It makes sense. A British dentist can get qualified, get a couple years experience and then bugger off to Australia, New Zealand, Canada or the USA. The same for other British doctors. They generally get paid better. The same for nurses. I know a nurse who often works at local hospital. He was an NHS nurse for a few years before having had enough and quitting. He now works for an agency and gets paid far, far better. He said that more and more nurses would prefer working for agencies. There’s always work, they get paid better and if they don’t like a hospital, they don’t have to go back. It isn’t just the UK. In Germany, many nurses and doctors go to Austria and Switzerland once they finish their training. Others go to Norway, Sweden or even Ireland. They get paid better and have a higher quality of life.

  22. I have never understood the UK’s resistance in a bit of bribery. Give them a free training in exchange for 10 years working for the NHS. What is their problem? Then they can go where they like. Make it a jailable offence to break the contract.
    They do it here in the USA, write off all debt incurred obtaining an MD if you do 10 years as a rural GP in some weird place. Have a girl friend who has a daughter doing just that in the high Chaparral on the CA/NA border. Otherwise it is impossible to get people to go! Funny enough that is where the daughter was born and bred so they paid her to go home!

    Really one wonders what holds the ears apart sometimes, anyone with half an ounce of intelligence could run the whole damned thing on the back of a postage stamp.
    Probably in triplicate!

  23. CO: A misplaced probity, methinks. I’m well familiar with that sort of incentive. Volunteer for the Peace Corps or Teach For America and a large chunk of student debt will be forgiven if a certain amount of time is dedicated. If someone teaches at a tribal school for, I believe, 5 years debt disappears, too!

    I’m not entirely sure anyone is running much of Europe at all at the moment, unless you count running something into the ground. Lately I’ve grown nostalgic for rural California. Dorset is pleasant enough, but I can’t help but think I’m in a relatively comfortable part of a sinking ship.

  24. Let me reassure you all. Here in the soft underbelly of England, there are suitably native practitioners of medicine and dentistry, awaiting one’s ailments. Happily my localest offspring has already done the Waitrose test and selected the most capable. My first GP interview yesterday confirmed that you cal always rely on Waitrose. And the littlest grandspawn have given Mr Brown the Dentist their approval in time for my arrival.

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