There are few things less Japanese than Costco. . . besides perhaps eating standing up, super-sized fries, road rage, and Christmas. A wholesale megastore such as this is decidedly out of place among the other food-purveying options this side of the Pacific Ring of Fire. In the average grocery store here one can rarely find the shopping trolleys which come standard in North American shops, and even though big supermarket chains are prevalent, boasting long wide aisles of processed crap just like back home (though perhaps with a few more processed fish treats) there is not a POS conveyor in sight. People here just don’t buy big, which may be one reason why in Canada I’m a size medium, and in Japan I’m an XL.
All this said, there is a Costco in Amagasaki just two hours of bridges and highways from here, and Aaron and I were invited to go last week with 68 year old Tama and her son, Hiroshi. We had spoken of it during a culinary discussion over dinner one evening at Tama’s house. She was shocked when I told her that I usually cook Japanese food at home, and I went on to explain that Japanese supermarkets carry little in the way of western staples, especially for those of us who can’t stomach factory raised meat and are attempting to avoid potentially radioactive fish products. We spoke of a place, a large and distant and brilliantly lit place boasting high ceilings and delicacies such as dill pickles, Spanish olives, Havarti cheese and granola. It’s cheap, we told her. Big and cheap. This is the conversation that led to our borrowing a friend’s Costco card, piling into Hiroshi’s futuristic white van with the automatic doors – which, despite the fact that they slid back and forth rather than opening up like wings, reminded me of a certain DeLorean – and driving the pricey highways to Hyogo prefecture.
So, negotiating throngs of Sunday afternoon shoppers mindlessly pushing jumbo trolleys full of jumbo miso, jumbo mayo, jumbo nori, jumbo chocolate covered pretzels, we shopped. Pushing past the food-mileage-related guilt, I selected some mascarpone. Giving in to homesickness, I seized tortillas and salsa. We piled high the olives and pickles and muffins and Corn Flakes and bricks of aged cheddar and yes, even jelly beans.
The contents of Tama’s cart were a bit more sparse: dog food, cling wrap, sliced beef and bag full of a stomach-turning product that seemed to consist of processed meat product wrapped around animal bones. If you can somehow imagine a meat popsicle – a collection of processed animal parts wrapped around a recycled bone from some unfortunate and unidentifiable animal species – this was it. I assumed Tama’s judgment had been impaired by this overwhelming shopping experience to which she’d been subjected by her foreign friends.
After the shame-inducing checkout experience during which we watched our gluttony gliding along before us on a rubber conveyor, we paid a visit to the sticky, grimy-floored food court. The look on Tama’s face when we ordered our 200 yen lunch combos and were handed 20oz cups with foil-wrapped hotdogs inside them was one of sheer bewilderment. We apologized to her many times over the course of the afternoon, embarrassed to have this greedy, filthy, nasty side of our culture revealed to her so nakedly. I realized that places like Costco are intrinsic to the perpetuation – nay, validation – of negative stereotypes, stereotypes I live with each time someone’s jaw drops when I tell them that I can use chopsticks, I do eat vegetables, I don’t eat meat three times a day, and that hamburgers are not my favourite food.
Tama announced in the car ride home that she’d like to visit Costco monthly, and that she’d like to have us over for dinner the following evening.
* * *
Upon arrival at Tama’s 24 hours later I presented her with a gift of boxed and shamelessly yet attractively over-packaged cookies. Like lightning, she disappeared into the kitchen and returned brandishing a bag of large red apples – which, while perhaps a modest gift back in Canada, here is quite a generous offering as this fruit retails for well over a dollar a piece, each apple nestled in its own protective styrofoamy netting – and I learned yet another of the myriad important lessons when it comes to gift giving in this country: wait until the very end, literally until you are saying goodbye and getting into the car to drive home, or else your hostess will give you a gift in return from her personal stash; now not only will you be served a home cooked feast, but have also just been handed eight dollars worth of apples and are left with nothing else to give in return for the apples except fifteen or so apologetic domo arigato gozaimasu’s.
We followed the mouth-watering aromas into the kitchen; gyoza, vegetable soup, squid tempura caught locally by Tama’s husband. I could see a bowl of her famous potato salad, a dish of gomae, and something else sizzling away in a fry pan. Suddenly my mind was swimming and my stomach was turning and I was in a state of complete disbelief at my misfortune. I elbowed Aaron and mouthed to him look on the stove, and he did, then looked back at me wide-eyed and terrified. The meat popsicles. I was trapped. I could feel my throat constricting as I realized that at some point very soon I would actually have to raise one of these abominations to my lips and politely eat it; even pretend to enjoy it.
Luckily – perhaps unluckily as at the time as I didn’t deem such monstrosities worthy of pre-gustation discussion, not wanting to know any more about them before taking the plunge – Aaron was not too shy to ask Tama about them.
“What are those?”
“Those things in the pan?”
Tama, who was slicing vegetables at the counter, blinked. She looked at me then back at him. She seemed worried that she was being tricked. “Frankfurters,” she said, with a slight intonation that insinuated something like What are you, simple? Tama was puzzled by this question because she believed she was preparing western food for her western guests and therefore that we should already be familiar with, and even excited for, this rare taste of home.
If these are enjoyed in anywhere in the west it is surely by a remote few who keep it as a shameful secret.
Aaron continued. “Is that a bone?”
“From what animal?”
“Chicken. Maybe. Maybe pig.”
Now Tama stopped what she was doing – putting the finishing touches on the boneless green salad – and turned and looked at us. It was a long hard look, both accusatory and confused. I smiled. Really big. Then I stopped when I realized my eyebrows were raised and I was grimacing a bit. “Why why?” she asked.
Aaron explained that this sausage-on-a-bone-stick does not exist in either of our native western countries; that it is a Japanese conception. Tama was clearly stunned.
This is not the only food I’ve encountered that the Japanese have embraced and marketed as something exotic and foreign, placing such delicacies in the American Food section of a menu along with fried potato (fries) and corn soup. I once got in an argument with a ten-year-old student of mine during a discussion about his favourite food. This took place shortly after my arrival in Japan and I had not yet encountered the family restaurant favourite known as Hamburg (pronounced ham-bah-gu).
Me: What’s your favourite food?
Me: No, your favourite food.
Me: You mean hamburger.
I went on to explain to little Yoshitoki that there was no such thing; that Hamburg is a city in Germany, not something to eat. I even showed him a map. I mistook his silence for concession, though realistically his English conversation abilities were insufficient to hold ground in an argument with his ignorant new sensei. I later discovered Hamburg on a menu and ordered it in an act of atonement. What arrived before me was a ground beef patty dripping with brown sauce and accompanied by a cube of fried chicken and a limp broccoli floret.
After a few more moments of silence Aaron continued. “I mean, why a bone?” And Tama gave the only answer there could possibly be.
“To hold on to.”
When the time came I ate the monster quickly and efficiently, and even though the processed meat itself tasted of any old hot dog, my gag reflex required that I douse the beast in the ketchup and mustard Tama had thoughtfully put on the table next to the soy sauce and matcha salt. When I got down to the recycled bone of ambiguous origin I held my breath. I was contemplating what amount of processed pork meat is acceptable for one to leave on a chicken bone or pork bone or whatever it was when I noticed Tama, still shaken by our incomprehensible line of questioning, observing us. When I saw the pleasure she was taking in watching us enjoying her Frankfurters I smiled, closed my eyes and went for it: distracting myself with thoughts of the waiting gyoza, I nibbled that bone-stick clean.
Aaron was offered a second and, after feigning indecision for a mere moment, he accepted. A teeny bit of my respect for him floated away. I reached for the salad, feeling triumphant in having endured my first “Frankfurter,” hid the bone under a lettuce leaf, and got on with my life.