Turning Japanese / by Deborah Clague

Walking the streets of Tokyo, you can't help but notice the sheer number of vending machines dispensing pretty much everything under the sun for the price of pocket change (cold beverages, hot beverages, beer, underwear). I made use of their convenience daily, the warm lavender tea being especially delightful on a rainy December day. Bizarrely-flavored drinks were a big trend actually, with a limited edition azuki bean-flavored Pepsi being sold as a seasonal collector's item (I tried it, not bad although a bit "mouthwash-y"). Japan was also home to the oddest Kit Kat flavors I have ever encountered, including ginger ale, Kobe pudding and red beak soup. 

Food-wise, I will admit that I was not looking forward to eating raw fish for three weeks. Japanese cuisine, while all the rage here in North America it seems, is just not my cup of warm lavender tea. But then I remembered that the best way to travel is to let go of any inhibitions and be completely immersive in the foreign experience. I remembered this after witnessing how much spaghetti they eat in Japan. TONS. They sure love their marinara - and so do I. My culinary indulgences were not without incident though; I did mistakingly purchase a dish of noodles with chopped octopus in it. It was...interesting. And by interesting, I mean it was like chewing a soy sauce-soaked prophylactic.

Restaurant chains that are near bankrupt here in North America seem to thrive in Asia. Case in point: of all the pizza joints to encounter (sadly, there were few), the only recognizable name I came across was SHAKEY'S! Don't get me wrong, I have fond memories of my parents taking me to the Shakey's in Grand Forks, ND back when I was a kid. But to be honest, in recent years the building resembled a rodent sanctuary. Krispy Kreme, which was hit hard by the recession last year, did brisk business in Japan as well. The location near my hotel always had a long, winding line-up of customers comparable to a top attraction at Disney. They even posted estimated wait times (which at one point was a good 45 minutes). Ya really gotta love donuts to endure that!  

My favorite place to shop for meals was in the basement of high-end department stores, the likes of which made Eaton's (R.I.P.) and The Bay look like Giant Tiger. Seriously, you have not experienced service until visiting the likes of Takashimaya or Mitsukoshi. One day I bought a 200 yen (approx. $2.25 CDN) macaroon cookie, which the sales associate promptly wrapped in a box and then placed in a stylish, tissue-laden gift bag. It made me feel like I was buying a necklace at Tiffany's or something. The cost of the packaging had to have been more than the cookie itself! But all of this left me jaded upon returning home to Canada; my great expectations of being briefly treated like a member of the aristocracy sorely deflated after purchasing a pricey business suit at one of the aforementioned high-end department stores and being met with the query: "do you need a bag?"

In Japan, it's estimated that there is one vending machine for every 23 people (current population 127,550,000):

The plastic food menus outside restaurants in Japan made ordering easy:

Shakey's Pizza (WTF?):