Hating Natto – a Dying Osaka Tradition

There’s so much about Japanese food that I love, but natto (納豆, fermented soybeans) is a culinary minefield. I can understand its health benefits and could probably even get used to the taste of the stuff, but (and this is no doubt a personal failing on my part) I can’t get past the fact that it smells like a foot infection. I’ve been here long enough to know that plenty of foreigners love natto and plenty of Japanese can’t stand it. The default opinion, though, is that “we Japanese love natto, and foreigners can’t eat it.”

It wasn’t always the case, at least in Kansai. In fact, when I first started working in Osaka, c.1989, the standard answer to the textbook question, “Do you like natto?” was “No – that’s Kanto food. We Osakans can’t eat it.” A bit of clever marketing in the early 90s changed that, nearly overnight. Dissenters, of course, still exist, but they keep their opinions to themselves.

Fifteen years on, it’s available in every supermarket or convenience store in Osaka, and it’s on the menu of many a diner, especially the lunch counters that cater to salarymen. I stopped by a gyudon  shop for lunch the other day (gyudon is a bowl of thin-sliced beef and green onions on rice), and while waiting for my order to arrive, I looked around to see which of the  tired-looking, middle-aged men in the shop had taken off his socks. Naturally, it was just the man on my right stirring up and tucking into his side-dish of natto and raw egg. I didn’t enjoy my lunch.

An import shop in Tennoji tried to popularize Thai tempeh a few years ago, but since I was apparently the only one buying it, they gave up. Tempeh is essentially the same food as natto (although I don’t know the difference, if any, between the fermenting agents used); the extra step, however, of pressing the tempeh into flat blocks during fermentation seems to take away the pong for which natto is so justly famed. I’ve only met one student who had ever eaten tempeh, and she complained that the smell and taste were too mild for her, and it felt funny in her mouth (unlike say, a bracing mouthful of tofu?). A dwindling number of old Kansai folk still audibly complain that natto stinks, has too strong a taste and … feels  funny in their mouth.

I’m with the old folks on this one, although it’s ironic that young Osakans (who live in an eternal present) assume it’s a sign of my foreignness that I can’t stand the stuff.

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Food Manga

Coming back from work on Monday night, I got off at Nagai Station and found my bicycle (parked out behind the exit, where no one is supposed to park but everybody does). In the basket were some books, small paperbacks. Religious tracts? Porno? No, although I’ve been given both over the years (the Japanese versions of both are equally tedious). These were three books of manga, from different publishers, but all about food.

Manga usually first appear in serial form in huge, pulpy, weekly comic book collections, featuring eight or nine different stories by different artists. The bigger, more general ones, like Shonen Jump, feature the usual team sports stories for the boys (Slam Dunk!), plus stories about cool delinquents (Bleach!) or animé-related fantasy with lots of tie-ins (Yugio! One Piece! Dragon Ball-Z!). Others, like Nakayoshi, are exclusively for girls and feature profoundly saccharine school-girl heroines (Candy Candy! Sailor Moon!). Still others, more specialized and adult-oriented, feature yakuza stories, samurai epics, or any type of porn you could imagine – and several you probably couldn’t. Like Victorian novels, the stories can go on for years, and many artists have loyal followings. Occasionally, stories are compiled into paperback volumes, which collectors buy. There are also manga cafés, where you pay a nominal hourly sum to drink unlimited coffee or soft drinks and read these compilations at your leisure – a sort of private paying library – very convenient for manga-lovers with no shelf space.

Anyway, these three books were about cooking. Not the most exciting topic to draw cartoons about, you say? You don’t know the half of it. There is nothing a Japanese hobbyist won’t read about his favourite topic and nothing a manga artist won’t draw to get an audience, no matter how small. When I was new to Japan, a friend and I tried to imagine the most boring manga, featuring all the usual sportsman-as-samurai clichés, about a drawn-out, utter non-event. We settled on golf. We would draw pages and pages of men standing on the green, not moving for panels on end, thwacking the ball in slow motion for five panels, then eight or nine panels of the ball flying through the air, and the sweat on the golfer’s brow (Japanese always sweat at times like this because it’s so crucial) as it lands in the sand trap. His opponent smirks wickedly – end of episode 72. We laughed our heads off over several pints of draught (it was in the old Keystone in Nagai, c.1989). The whole thing would be designed to be so utterly underwhelming – excruciating details of pure inaction. Ah we were brilliant back then! So imagine my deflation two days later when I took a seat on the subway next to a sombre, plump salaryman who was reading… a golf manga. The artist had cleverly dealt with the problem of all those inert panels by including a sportscaster, who narrated. Boringly. Lines of Japanese script ran vertically down the sides of the panels as the golfers stood there. And gazed into the distance. And moved their thumb down a notch on the driver. Perhaps we should have tried a house-painting manga (Chapters 1-3 – Flat or Gloss for the living room: Keiko’s heart will break at the wrong choice, but Kazu can’t decide), although I’m sure someone has long since beat us to it.

I brought the food manga home. Tried reading one chapter/episode the other night. A taxi driver says bad things to his customer about the restaurant they’re driving to. Realizes that customer works there. Silent glances. Cabbie goes home to his pathetic bed-sit. Eats Cup Noodle, smokes in his futon. Flashes back to the quarrel he had with his wife at that same restaurant: she leaves him, taking their daughter. Present day: cabbie dresses and goes to the restaurant. Eats good food – the chef comes out from the kitchen: same guy to whom he criticized the place. “I’m the new owner. It’s better now.” He looks into the distance (to Mount Fuji, no doubt), proudly. For some reason this inspires the cab driver to go back to his wife, if she’ll have him. I’ve got to read it again with the kanji dictionary, but that’s the story in a nutshell. They all seem to be pretty much in the same vein (although one features three pages on how to peel and carve a bamboo shoot, which might come in handy some day…)

There are three volumes of this. Somewhat more interesting (and a lot weirder) than all the textbooks gathering dust on my shelf. I wonder who left them in the basket? A case of mistaken bicycality? Ah well, a good a way as any to start the summer holidays.

Dragonfly Café, Amemura

(This place closed about a year after the review appeared, but I don’t think it was my fault…)

The Dragonfly is a short walk from Yotsubashi Namba station, or three blocks south of America Mura’s Triangle Park, in Osaka (across the street from the Family Mart). An elevator at the end of a narrow corridor takes you to the third floor. This café-lounge (café in the afternoon, slowly evolving into lounge at night) is like a stage ready to be decorated – unbuffed black and white floors and walls, indirect lighting in the evening, assisted in the daytime by natural light from a big picture window. Along the walls, a monthly exhibition of photographs or other works from guest artists. The afternoon I visited… (read more here)

“Get your own damn salaryman!”

Shortly after arriving for my first stint in Osaka, I discovered, as all new arrivals did, the Pig and Whistle, an ersatz British pub in Shinsaibashi. It was then (c. 1989) the only place one could get an order of fish and chips, and beer in a pint glass. It was also one of the first actual gaijin bars in the city (this was in the days when “Gaijin dame!” – no foreigners! – was a not untraditional greeting in the drinking quarters of cheery old Naniwa). Salarymen, in those heady, Bubble Economy days, were always working hard to use up their then-generous expense accounts, and it was quite trendy to go to the Pig and try to start up conversation with a gaijin sensei or two. By 10 PM, it was usually standing room only, the ratio of Japanese to foreigners nearly 50-50. If they were middle-aged managers or bosses (so not really salarymen, although we weren’t aware of the difference at the time) they’d also bring an underling salesman or a few OLs and treat them to a drink and the passing parade. I find it hard to think of myself as exotic (it’s not an adjective that clings naturally to anything from Nova Scotia), but I guess we were, to them. In 1989. Hard to believe now.

Besides the one-time-only gawkers, there were a few regular Japanese patrons, salarymen, whom you’d notice there at least once a week. They did not all look alike, but back then they certainly tried to, and it must be said that many of them succeeded. They would introduce themselves once, and you were expected, like a Japanese businessman must, to remember their name for the rest of your life, though of course I rarely did. I spoke next to nothing, literally a few sentences of Japanese (including those sure-fire conversation starters, “Where is the subway station?” and “How much is the beer?”). I couldn’t even follow Japanese-accented English (now I can barely understand anything else…). More often than not I would miss the name several times until the guy helpfully took out his business card and showed me his name, written not in English, but kanji. Big help.

At any rate, it got you meeting people, and the Pig was sort of a halfway house to acclimatize newbies to Japan and enable Japanese to meet actual foreigners at close range, under controlled conditions (it was also a pick-up joint, but it didn’t become primarily so until somewhat later, when it became sleazy and boring and we deserted it for Tin’s Hall). It didn’t seem so bad at the time.

I had been in Japan about a month when, dropping into the Pig after work, a gray-haired man in a pinstripe suit and a meticulous comb-over (bar-code, the kids call it here) struck up a conversation with me. I have no idea what we spoke about, he seemed friendly enough, and he offered to buy me a beer. I accepted with feigned reluctance (I had learned that much Japanese etiquette in a month), and he had barely walked over to the bar when a stocky foreigner, also in a suit, brushed past me and muttered in my ear.

“Hey, pal,” he said, ” get your own damn salaryman. He’s been buying me drinks for the past week.”

There’s no point to this story. I was just reminded of it by another blog I’ve just read. I do remember drinking the beer anyway, naturally. As for the ale-whore, he eventually went up to the man, bowed ingratiatingly, and got his beer too, throwing me a smug look in the process. Luckily, I started making Japanese friends and going to izakaya (居酒屋, Japanese pubs) around then, and my quality of life (if not my liver’s) improved exponentially.

For the Sake of Change

Today, being my day off, I had lunch at Nagai’s local cut-rate sushi shop ( ¥128 a plate!), then wandered lazily across the street to Mister Donuts (infinitely more pleasant since they went smoke-free last June) to drink an au lait (pronounced “OHH-ray“) and generally read a book and digest sushi. At both places there was a little comedy of manners when it came time to pay, one that’s been happening quite a lot lately.

Some background: other than at drinking establishments or roadside food stands, passing money directly from one hand to another was once considered vulgar in Japan. Donald Richie, who arrived here in the 40s, writes of older people going so far as to neatly wrap their individual banknotes in tissue paper, so no one had to actually touch them. That tradition was well before my time, but it’s still quite common to put money in a little envelope when paying for a private transaction (an English lesson, for example), and you can still buy those little envelopes at any convenience store. It was the custom in all shops, when I first arrived here, to put your payment on a little flat dish next to the till . The clerk would call out how much you owed (in respectful Japanese), announce how much you had given, then announce, once the register had been opened and your change taken out and put on the dish, how much you were getting back. I assume this was done to show the honesty of the shop, although Canadians, say, aren’t used to having their transactions broadcast all over the store and don’t really like it (especially if you’ve just placed the equivalent of $120 in the dish, a not uncommon thing to do). Naturally, since it’s the norm here, it doesn’t even click with the other customers, but it took me some getting used to once I figured out what was being said.

Over the last five years, this custom has been dying off. Unfortunately, no one has quite decided on what to replace it with (this often happens in Japan). Upscale restaurants seem to be sticking with the little dish, but fast food shops and convenience stores can’t decide what the new protocol is (and this is Japan – there must be a “right” way to do it). So shopkeepers are living lives, I guess, of quiet desperation.

Last Tuesday, when I got up to pay for my lunch at the sushi shop, the dish was there but was placed in such a way in front of the till (which was on a sort of lectern instead of a counter) that I’d have had to put my money on the dish, then pass the dish to the server, which would’ve been stupid. So I just handed the server the money, and she took it, awkwardly. She talked the transaction through, as usual, then walked from behind the counter and, nearly clasping my hand with both of hers, placed the change into it, like Good Queen Bess giving alms to a beggar. Very awkward. Now the exact thing happened at MisuDo, but that was because there was no dish at all. I paid the kid at the counter (who also took it hesitantly, as though I’d handed him a subpoena instead of ¥1000), didn’t talk it through, but also gave me my change with two hands (but so clumsily that I still ended up dropping half of it).

It’s not their fault, really. To any Japanese kid born after 1988, all this is just ancient history and I’m just Rip van Gaijin. In their daily life, they have no taboos about money and are only behaving the way their manager (born c. 1970) has trained them to, a compromise way to keep young and old customers happy, or at least uninsulted.
The managers all seem to read the same trendy management books. There are always such trends – about eight years ago, all the convenience store kids began shouting ohaiyo gozaimasu! – good morning! – instead of the traditional irrashaimase! – welcome. I couldn’t see a reason for it, but there seems to be a feeling that the former is more modern – read better. Then the little dishes started disappearing. It’s probably a matter of time before they all start to say “have a nice day.” Maybe that’s when I’ll finally get on the plane.

Until something is eventually agreed upon by consensus, though (and becomes, retroactively, Japanese Tradition), we’ll be having little scenes like the ones I saw today. It doesn’t exactly make me Darwin on Galapagos, but as a little bit of social evolution it’s interesting to observe. Or it would be, if I didn’t have to keep picking my change off the floor.