Before visiting Japan, I thought I knew about the culture. I had been studying Japanese for almost three years. I had eaten lots of Japanese food. I had read Japanese novels translated into English. I had watched movies set in Tokyo.
I imagined a place like this…
And traveling packed into trains like this… (well this does kind of happen sometimes)
(Credit: The Atlantic.)
I was humbled when I got to Japan and realized that in fact, I knew and understood very little about the country of Japan.
This probably should not have been a surprise to me. Of course, the culture of an entire nation was more than I could possibly hope to understand from a few movies and books and restaurants. My knowledge was rudimentary and many times unrealistically informed by media and common stereotypes. Being in Japan and talking to my Japanese friends, I also experienced the flip side – my friends primarily knew the United States through watching television shows and Hollywood movies.
No, not everyone carries a gun. No, I do not eat only pizza. No, french fries are not free at McDonald’s. (I’m not even sure where this last one came from.)
One of my labmates was particularly fond of the NBC television show “Prison Break.” You can imagine the questions he asked…
Also I got asked a lot about my high school prom. Sadly for those asking, I did not go to prom, so the conversation pretty much ended there (although I did go to dances in college). I think the interest might be because Japanese schools generally do not have dances. Instead, the major group event for high school students is the class trip, which is often chaperoned and (at least to my friends) did not seem quite as glamorous and exciting as the prom shenanigans depicted in American movies.
Living in Japan, I gained a fresh perspective on American culture. I also learned that I still had a lot to learn about Japan, and that I needed to correct some of my misunderstandings.
Here are a few “Japanese” things that I learned are not really Japanese:
For the longest time when I read Japanese novels, I pronounced this work as “say-k.” As in – “For goodness’ sake!” or “For the sake of discussion, let’s just say that flying is faster.” It was only when I started to study Japanese that I realized the word should be pronounced “sah-keh.”
Aside from being able to say the word, I thought that “sake” referred specifically to Japanese rice wine. So if I went to a restaurant in Japan and ordered one “sake,” I would be brought a serving of clear Japanese rice alcohol.
Turns out… Sake is just a general word for alcohol! In Japan, wine is sake. Beer is sake. Whiskey is sake. Vodka is sake.
This fine fruit wine is “sake” too. It is labeled “お酒” at the bottom in the circle, meaning “o-sake.”
2. The city of Tokyo
Yep, possibly one of the most recognizable and representative Japanese things does not actually exist in Japan. Honestly, I still have a hard time remembering this. But, Tokyo is not a city. That’s right. Technically “Tokyo city” is not a place on the map.
So what is Tokyo? Tokyo is a “to.”
In Japan, there are a series of geographic regions, like the United States is divided into states, cities, towns, etc. Tokyo is designed as a “to,” or a “metropolitan prefecture.” A prefecture is more like a state in the United States. So calling Tokyo a city is like calling California a city. Instead, the prefecture of Tokyo is quite large and varied, encompassing 23 wards, 26 cities, 3 towns, and 1 village.
ALL of this is Tokyo! The purple ones are wards; the pink ones cities; the beige ones towns; and the light teal ones villages.
(Courtesy of ja.wikipedia.org.)
Teriyaki has gotten pretty well recognized even outside Japan. (In fact, the spellchecker on my computer automatically recognizes “teriyaki” as a word.) Almost every Japanese restaurant I can remember visiting in the U.S. offered “teriyaki chicken” or “teriyaki beef.” So I thought it was a pretty standard Japanese food.
And it is, but Japanese teriyaki is a bit different. Less sticky and thick…
(Photo credit to Tohto Coop.)
Many American teriyaki recipes call for garlic and ginger. This results in a flavorful sauce perfect for marinating. In Japan, teriyaki is much lighter, and rather than being a sauce, is more like a way of cooking . Recently driving around Los Angeles, I saw a restaurant called “B-Man’s Teriyaki & Burgers.” This would be a bit like me naming my restaurant, “J-Girl’s Fried & Burgers” and featuring all kinds of fried foo
Teriyaki in Japan can be made from just 4 pantry staples – soy sauce, mirin (sweet Japanese cooking wine), sake, and sugar. And if you go to a restaurant in Japan, you are unlikely to see teriyaki on the menu. It is more of a simple home-cooking technique.
No teriyaki at this restaurant. But lots of other yummy food! Like this excellent shellfish sushi.
As a side note – I do have to say, that “teriyaki burgers” indeed exist in Japan. But I would hesitate to call these burgers representative of traditional teriyaki-style.
Mochi is a Japanese rice cake that is made from pounded rice. It has a gooey, chewy (some might say gelatinous) consistency. In Japan it is traditionally eaten around New Years, although you can buy it pretty much anytime. It can be used to make sweets, but it can also be savory served in soups or toasted and dipped in soy sauce.
Somewhat skeptically chewing on a chunk of toasted mochi during my first trip to Japan.
Actually I knew about mochi even as a kid. Or, at least, I knew that my dad really did not like it. In college, my dad had worked in his school’s “Japan House,” a facility dedicated to promoting understanding of Japanese culture. That is where he first ate mocha. He compared it to Elmer’s glue.
My dad was eating mochi the traditional way – in sweetened red bean soup – but in the United States, mochi has gained popularity as a dessert. Mention “mochi” and people likely think of “mochi ice cream.” Before starting this post, I thought that mochi ice cream was entirely the creation of clever marketers. Mochi is not exactly a texture that might appeal to most Americans (as my dad experience shows). What could be a better solution than wrapping it around ice cream?(Credit: Miyakawa.)
However, it turns out the story is a bit more complicated.
I found out that mochi ice cream was actually created right here in Los Angeles! In 1994, Frances Hashimoto, former president and CEO of Mikawaya, began selling mocha ice cream balls as a novelty item. Mikawaya is a candy shop, founded in 1910 by the Hashimoto family, which specializes in Japanese sweets. Frances took over the shop in 1970 when she was just 27. Years later, she is now credited as the inventor of the popular mochi ice cream dessert.
Those mochi ice cream balls lining the freezer case in Trader Joe’s? Those are from Mikawaya!
(Credit to TasteOpinion.)
I am not sure anymore whether to call mochi ice cream Japanese or not. It is certainly not a traditional way of serving mochi. And yes, it was created in the United States. However, it was created in a shop honoring traditional Japanese ways of making sweets and first made by an inventive and enterprising Japanese-American businesswoman. So maybe more of a bicultural hybrid.
If you want to try the original mochi ice cream, a single ball is just $1 at the Mikawaya flagship store in LA’s Little Tokyo.
5. Honda Pickup Truck
One last quick thing –
Big American-style pickup trucks in Japan just don’t exist. Even commercial semis in Japan are much smaller and more compact. The roads are simply too narrow to handle large vehicles. So those impressive Honda-made pickup trucks, like the Honda Ridgeline? Those cannot been seen anywhere in Japan. Yes, Japanese-made but only for the American market.
You are more likely to see pint-sized trucks like this…