Sampling local food when traveling far away from home can sometimes be quite an adventure. Generally, I look forward to that adventure with anticipation. However, there have been times when I have not felt the need to be quite so adventurous. Trying to decide what to eat for breakfast when I was in Japan with my favorite travel companion was one of those times.
The hotel breakfast buffet was disappointing to say the least. Food choices that looked vaguely familiar included overcooked scrambled eggs, dried-out bread and some pinkish processed meat that seemed to be posing as ham. So it was hardly surprising to see the hotel guests ignore this rather suspect fare in favor of the Japanese breakfast offerings. These included miso soup, plain steamed rice and some lovely fresh salad. Although these seemed more suitable for lunch than breakfast, they actually appeared more appetizing than the garish pink meat at the other end of the buffet. However, I grew distinctly queasy when I saw the locals tucking into seaweed and raw fish with obvious gusto.
What really made me queasy, however, was natto, a fermented soy bean dish so uniquely Japanese that it deserves a whole paragraph to itself. Many Japanese love natto, and believe it provides amazing health benefits. But for me it gives a whole new meaning to the old saying that if something is good for you it has to taste bad. When you help yourself to a serving of natto the first thing you notice is that it the brown soy beans are covered with a pattern of yellowish slime which some Japanese lovingly compare to spider webs.
As you stir the beans around, the slime seems to increase in volume. When you finally get the guts to pick a bean out of the dish, it draws a trail of slime up with it. It also has an aroma reminiscent of locker room sweat, and a taste to match.
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Bacon, Eggs and Sugar Substitute
The next morning we decided to go for a walk and look for some more appetizing possibilities. We recognized many restaurant franchises, but didn't relish a burger or fried chicken for breakfast. We considered an egg Subway but my favorite travel companion fancied bacon and eggs, so Denny's seemed like a good bet. It looked just like the Denny's back home. It had the same red and yellow sign, and when we walked in we saw the same decor, and smelled the same fragrant coffee aroma.
Unfortunately, as we soon found out, this Denny's did not offer bacon and eggs. The menu, of course, was absolutely incomprehensible. Because we could not read Japanese, we poured over pictures of various combinations of salad and fish, trying to decide what to order. As we were studying the menu a polite little Japanese waitress came over to help us. I had prepared for our Japanese trip by taking conversational Japanese lessons and buying a dictionary, and actually managed to ask for coffee without the help of said dictionary. The waitress bowed courteously and poured our drinks while I basked proudly in my communicative success.
But pride, as they say, comes before a fall.
There was a container of sugar packets on the table. My FTC looked for some artificial sweetener, but did not see any. Because he has a seriously misplaced faith in my magical ability to speak in tongues, he asked me if I could ask the waitress to bring some.
Since "Can you bring my husband some sugar substitute?" was not one of the useful phrases I had learned in Japanese class (and why would it be?), my first reaction was that he might just as well have asked me to scale Mount Everest. But, of course, I did have my dictionary. I knew the word for "sugar" and I knew how to say "please", so all I needed to do was find the Japanese for "substitute" and figure out how to cobble together a sentence.
I began attacking the problem as if it was a challenging Sudoku puzzle, and I soon had my sentence ready. I called the nice little waitress over and made my carefully worded request.
Her polite demeanor instantly changed to a look of stunned amazement. However, she did take the container of sugar packets to the kitchen, so it seemed that she had understood me. I sat there congratulating myself once again on my linguistic skill until she returned with an identical container to the one she had just taken away. I suddenly understood her reaction. I had somehow mistranslated "Please bring sugar substitute" as "Please change the sugar."
"No, no, no!" I protested in broken Japanese. "Not that. Not sugar," and started looking in the dictionary for "diabetes" and "blood."
A very important aspect of Japanese culture seems to be "When in doubt, hold a meeting." Consequently, the waitress enlisted the help of all the other waitstaff. They gathered in a huddle around us and held a rapid fire discussion of the problem at hand until one of the waitresses had a Eureka moment. Her eyes grew to triple their normal size and her mouth fell open as she uttered "Aaaah! diatsugaa!"
Who would have guessed that the Japanese for "sugar substitute" is actually "diet sugar" spoken with a Japanese accent?
"Yes! Yes!" I exclaimed triumphantly, "Diatsugaa!".
I was overjoyed. I had finally managed to communicate, and there were smiles all around. Life was wonderful. Except for one small detail. They did not actually have any diet sugar.
Other Breakfast Options
Too embarrassed to go back to Denny's, we found several other breakfast alternatives which were surprisingly easy on the budget.
Japanese bakery coffee shops offer a wide assortment of wonderful, freshly baked buns priced from 100 to 300 yen ($1-$3) which contain various sweet or savory fillings. We helped ourselves to goodies and paid at the cashier without further linguistic embarrassment. However, because we could not read the Japanese signs we had no clue what was inside the buns and it was quite an adventure finding out. My favorites were curry buns and sweet red bean paste buns.
We also found that many train and bus stations have food counters or coffee shops which sell reasonably-priced baked good and fresh sandwiches.
But since we had a fridge in our room we mostly bought fresh fruit, yogurt and baked goods at the nearby convenience store before checking into our hotel and enjoyed a relaxing in-room breakfast the next morning. Although the baked goods from the "conbini" were not as fresh as the bakery buns, we found this to be a cheap, convenient and reasonably healthy option with a minimum of linguistic embarrassment.
And even though my experience at the Japanese Denny's has ingrained the Japanese for sugar substitute so deeply in my brain that it will accompany me to the grave, I doubt if I will ever need to ask for "diatsugaa" again.