Well, Bill and I are getting ready to pack our carry-on suitcases and make our way to the international wing of the airport once again. This time, we’re traveling to Japan for the Wakashio Marathon in Tateyama. We leave in mid-January. This will be the fourth continent on which we’ve run a marathon! Sometimes I can hardly believe this dream is coming true.
Every international trip requires research and then specific preparations. For example, you may have to get shots to protect against tropical diseases or buy special clothing for unusual weather conditions. For warm-weather trips, I make sure to purchase extra-potent insect repellent because bugs love me. If there’s a mosquito in the hotel, or the town we’re visiting, it’ll find me. Fortunately mosquitoes will not be a problem on this trip to Japan. That’s one advantage of traveling in the winter.
This time, I’m grappling with how to prepare for a different type of problem. You see, I don’t like Japanese food. I know, I know! I can hear your shock! I am the only person in the world who does not like Japanese food. Everyone, Japanese or otherwise, loves sashimi, tempura, miso soup, noodles and those little triangular rice balls with a surprise inside. I can appreciate the occasional yaki soba or California roll, but I’m not a big fan of the soy flavor in most Japanese food. Rice makes me bloated and constipated. And raw fish does nothing for me. I know it’s unusual and maybe even a sin, but it’s just how I feel.
Bill and I have traveled to Japan before and food was a huge problem for me. We went there on our honeymoon in 2005. Bill had a series of business meetings he needed to attend in Tokyo, so we decided we’d add a couple of weeks onto his trip and make a vacation out of it. We arranged an exciting itinerary that took us to Nagoya for the World’s Fair and to Kyoto to see the ancient temples. Then we made our way to Tokyo where Bill spent between about 8:00am and 4:00pm in meetings while I wandered through the city. This suited me fine. I was able to shop and catch up with a few friends who lived within a short train ride. Each night, Bill and I planned to meet back at the hotel room around 4:30 and go out together for dinner. I’d discovered this one tolerable curry dish that was available at most restaurants.
But on our third evening in Tokyo, I had a full-on food crisis one night.
Bill was in his meeting, expected back at the hotel sometime after 4:30. I was there waiting for him, flipping channels on the TV. Nothing kept my attention (it was in Japanese, after all). There was three-quarters of a bottle of Australian wine on the night stand from the evening before. I poured myself a glass and settled on the bed to wait for Bill. At 5:00, he wasn’t back and I was getting hungry. By 5:30, I knew I’d have to get something to tide me over in case his meetings ran much longer. I had a vague memory from our conversation in the morning, while I was still in bed, that a late meeting was a possibility.
I decided I’d take a walk to the grocery store on the corner. We’d had some trouble with grocery stores in the first part of our trip. We had to rely on the images on the packaging to figure out what we were buying. Usually we guessed right and ended up with the yogurt or tuna we meant to buy, but at least a few times we’d been wrong. Once we opened a container and found some kind of margarine spread when we’d meant to buy cheese. Even though it was a gamble, I hoped I’d be able to find some kind of small snack to get me through till dinner. And anyhow, grocery stores are interesting, great places from which to observe a culture close up.
I scoped one out across the road from the main entrance of the hotel. On my way over, I noticed I was just a bit tipsy from my glass of wine, so I crossed the street carefully. I walked in through the automatic sliding doors and breathed in the fishy soy smell that I was getting used to in the supermarkets. I started on the right side of the store and wandered each aisle, looking for something I recognized. I finally located a tiny jar of peanut butter. That sounded good. A piece of bread with creamy peanut butter smoothed on its surface would go perfectly with cheap Australian wine, I thought. I looked at the price on the shelf below it, listed in yen and then picked it up and headed to the check out. On second thought, I decided I’d better dig the calculator out of my pocket and make the change from Yen to American dollars, so I knew what I was spending. $6.39!!! There was no way I was paying more than six dollars for two ounces of peanut butter. I put the jar back in its spot and kept moving down the aisle.
I walked past packages of dry noodles, jars of mayonnaise, cans of shrimp, bags of chips and numerous objects I could not identify by their packaging, though I picked them up and studied them from all vantage points. Finally, I retreated to the back of the store and the meat section. I stood, staring down at raw meat and sea food I’d never seen before. The “deli” section had pre-prepared food ready to eat on the run, but I couldn’t figure out what most of it was. There was a shrink wrapped bowl of teriyaki chicken, but I didn’t have a microwave back in the hotel room to heat it up.
Finally, I decided that some fresh produce would be an easy answer. With my calculator in hand, I returned to the front of the store and faced down the fruit section. There, like an apparition from heaven, was a Fuji apple! I picked it up and squeezed it. It was firm and my mouth watered for its juice. I made the translations from kilos to pounds and then Yen to dollars and estimated that it was more expensive than I’d pay at home, but not as bad as the little jar of peanut butter. It would have to do. I stuck my calculator in the back pocket of my jeans and reached in my front pocket to pull out my Yen as I walked toward the check-out counter.
Standing at the back of the line, holding my apple in one hand and my money in the other, I watched the people in front of me. Each had a little basket full of items I could not identify. They did not talk to one another or to me, though several of them glanced tentatively in my direction and then averted eye contact quickly when I tried to smile at them. I looked down at the apple in my hand. And I waited.
The checker was slow. I observed her carefully. There was no way to know for sure, but she seemed honest. This was crucial because I took note that there was no little screen next to the cash register displaying the price of the purchase. Once she weighed my apple and figured out the exact price, I would be at her mercy. I would hold my money out to her and trust her to pick out the right coins and give me the correct change.
I felt how dependent I was on others in this country. I pulled out my calculator again and tried to guess at the right change to offer so I wouldn’t look like an illiterate idiot, which of course, I was here. The woman directly in front of me in line gave me a suspicious once-over (I thought) while the woman who had lined up behind me looked at me with pity (I thought). God, this was ridiculous. It shouldn’t be so hard to buy a stupid apple without looking like an imbecile. I made a promise to myself to always be helpful to foreigners in grocery stores when I got home.
I looked down at my apple again. Suddenly, although my stomach was gurgling, I was repulsed by this apple. It was nothing but a representation of my shame and ignorance, my cultural ineptitude. It would do nothing but expose me. I couldn’t imagine anything worse in the world than eating this apple. This apple disgusted me! Suddenly, I decided I’d had too many apples in my life. For all I knew this Fuji apple was grown in Washington State, anyway, right across the mountains from me, maybe on my uncle’s farm.
I stormed back to the produce section and replaced the Fuji apple in the perfect pyramid from which I’d plucked it. Then I left the grocery store.
As I crossed the busy street and made my way back to the hotel, I hoped Bill was there waiting for me in the room. I was agitated now. My hotel room was empty. The clock read 6:00. Bill couldn’t be far behind me at this point. I settled in in front of an unintelligible TV show with another glass of wine.
One hour, two more unsuccessful trips to the grocery store and the rest of the bottle of Australian wine later I began to decompose. By this time, I was drunk. I hadn’t eaten since noon, and I was embarrassed by my incompetence and fear of being mocked by the other shoppers. I started to cry.
I cried so hard that I began to convulse. My mascara ran down my face and my nose plugged with mucus. My shoulders shook, and I even had a touch of the dry heaves. All by myself alone in a hotel room on my honeymoon starving, I sobbed.
At 7:13, Bill walked through the door and found me thus. I managed to open my puffy eyes a little in his direction and I saw his alarm. “Oh my god, what happened? Are you okay? Did something happen?” Poor Bill was frantic.
I tried to speak, inhaling sharply between each word, “I – can’t – shop.” Sniff. “I’m – totally – illiterate – and – so – hungry.” Bill sat down on the bed and held me. I wiped my nose on his collar. He stroked my hair. Then he caught sight of the empty wine bottle by the bed.
“Did you drink all of that?”
I nodded. “I – tried – to – buy – food. The grocery – store didn’t – have any.” We were silent while he held me and I wound down a little. Like a mother with a very small child, he brushed the hair off my forehead and lifted my face so I had to look him in the eye.
“Are you drunk?” he asked me. I nodded. “And you’ve eaten nothing?” I nodded. He studied me earnestly and then stood, lifting me to my feet by my shoulders. Then he swatted me on the bum and said, “Get your shoes on. We’re going to McDonald’s to get you some French fries.”
I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of McDonald’s. It was kitty-corner across from the grocery store, but I’d been so focused on wanting to conquer the supermarket, that it never dawned on me to look for something familiar and comforting. I stumbled, heavily supported by Bill, down the elevator, across the street and into McDonald’s. I was struck immediately by that wonderful thick scent of grease. Bill sat me down at a booth and in a few minutes came back with a fish burger, fries and a milkshake. I ate quickly and then sent him back for another round.
We learned a lot from that experience. So as I get ready for this, my second trip to Japan, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and have realized the most important advanced preparation I can do is come up with an eating plan. Here it is:
- Forego my recently espoused vegetarianism while in Japan. This will open options for me.
- Try everything, even if it doesn’t smell good.
- Locate all fast food restaurants in our vicinity upon arrival and do not be embarrassed to eat what is familiar
- Bring snacks from Costco to tide me over in a pinch
- Do not drink alone.