Hikari's Food/Japanophile and Other Interesting Stuff blog

Guest Blogging: How to pretend like you know what’s going on in another language!

Okay everyone, this will be Melissa’s last blog post for now. This was meant to be the first post, but they kinda got posted out of order.  We hope you’ve enjoyed her lovely tales of adventure. Hopefully we’ll get some more if we ask nicely!

Hello Everyone! My names Melissa and Hikari asked me tell a story or two about my experiences in Japan. To start off I am with the JET program, which is a program for foreigners (yeah us!) to teach English in Japan at nursery, elementary, junior, and high school level. This will be my 2nd year in the JET program and I am loving it!

But not all of my experiences have been rainbows and unicorn poop. Like any person traveling to a different country there were many cultural misunderstandings. In this neck of the woods of Japan, the elderly speak a very special kind of Japanese called “Kuma-ben” which is a nice way of saying that they speak hillbilly. My Japanese skills have never been superb but I thought I could get by. That was until I ran into my first obaa-chan (granny). She stopped me in the street and just kept chattering away. I tried to watch her mouth to perhaps garner a small kernel of what she was saying but alas nothing was making sense. This is where I discovered that all foreigners in Japan can get away with having an entire conversation, not understand a single word, using only 5 words.

Now there are the usual yes/no, nod/guttural sounds (for example `はい` (hai) or `そう、そう` (so, so)) all Japanese people make, but there are a couple of responders that work wonders with the elderly. `honto/honto-ni`(本当/本当に) is an expression showing your shock or surprise towards something. Kind of like the English “really?” response we do. `So-nan-da`(そうなんだ) is used to show that you understand something, sometimes but not always the situation is explaining something more serious or perhaps sad (not ALWAYS but sometimes). This would be the Japanese equivalent to “I see…” or “Is that so?” in English. Then there is `naru-hodo` (なるほど) which, like `so-nan-da`, is used to express understanding but in this case you are expressing your understanding towards something that was only recently clarified in the conversation. This would be our “ok, I got it” in English. Then there is the ever wonderful `majide`(まじで!). This, simply put, is “no way!”. An exclamation of surprise or disbelief, and for a foreigner there are plenty of things for you to `majide` about. With these wonderful words in your tool belt you are ready to go.

This is where I return back to my story. As I watched the obaa-chan’s face I looked to see what kind of expression she wore. I also paid attention to her tone of voice. I matched her tone of voice with my responder. If it looked like she was trying to say something interesting or perhaps shocking, I responded with a `majide` or `honto-ni`. If she looked to be saying something more serious or somber then I responded in kind with a `naru-hodo` and did minimal responses. Small head nods and hmms here and there will be enough for that person to think you understand. So the most important thing to remember is to always read the other person and go from there. Read their reactions to your responses and run like the wind when you finally come up with a viable enough of an excuse.

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Guest Blogging: Strange/Unusual Japanese Foods

(Once again, my friend Melissa sends us tales of life in the JET program. She is currently living in in Kumamoto Prefecture on Kyushu Island.)

One of the first things that comes to people’s minds when they think about traveling to a foreign country is the different types of food. Most are slight tweaks to a common food that we may have eaten in the past; a type of chicken cooked with a new tropical fruit, or perhaps a type of pasta made with a cheese you’ve never tasted before. All of which are relatively safe and leave your palate piqued with interest but not overwhelmed.

Japan, in my experience, has two very different categories of food. On the one hand Japanese cuisine is famous for being very mild with their flavors and preferring to taste the basis of what you are eating rather than additives. A good example would be sushi where the focus is on the natural taste of the fish rather than any type of seasoning. Even their sweets are very bland in nature. Mild creams and chocolates are just enough to sweeten your taste-buds but not enough to overload them with sugar.

Then there is the strange and unusual category. Different parts of Japan will have their own foods to put in this category but in Kyushu there are a couple of winners that I feel deserve to be mentioned.

Actual size.

Yamame, actual size.

The first and actually the least unusual in this area would be Yamame. This is a type of trout that is caught in the fresh-water rivers in the smaller villages. The fish in about 5-7 inches long, with very little meat on it.

Actual picture of the yamame Melissa ate… to the applause of the entire lunchroom.

Actual picture of the yamame Melissa ate… to the applause of the entire lunchroom.

The thing that makes this special is that in this part of Japan eating that fish whole, head and all, is the ONLY way to eat that fish. There’s no picking out the bones or taking out the eyes. You eat every little bit of that fish. The audible crunch of the bones and the bitter aftertaste of the organs can be a bit much at first but it grows on you after a while. The thing that sometimes gets you is when they serve a female Yamame. It is considered very lucky to get a pregnant female. The kids during school lunch will gasp in excitement and jealousy when they see the gaping hole of the fish with little eggs spilling out. The ‘pop, pop’ feel of eggs bursting in your mouth like little zits has been something to this day that I struggle with. The bitter salty taste of the eggs and the almost jelly like texture sticks to the roof of your mouth for the entire day.

This next food is something that is very famous in this part of Japan. To start off with I should mention that in Kyushu all forms of meat, fish, sea food, etc. is game to be eaten raw. On several occasions I have been served raw chicken and pork. Now to some this might seem strange but salmonella and other bacterial growths in meat are non-existent in Japan. Eating raw meat is considered very safe and even a preferred health measure since you are getting the full amounts of vitamins and protein without the extra fats and salts that end up in the meat when you cook it. Chicken and beef are not the most unusual raw meat to be served. This next meat can come in at a whopping $100 for a small plate of it raw and the animal itself is actually brought in from the good old USA. So a big round of applause goes out to Montana for supplying Japan with your… can you guess? …HORSIES!

Yep, they eat little ponies on purpose!

Yep, they eat little ponies on purpose!

Yes, raw horse meat or Basashi is considered a delicacy in this part of Japan. There is even a festival, called the drunken horse festival, where the horses are hand fed beer and are blessed by priests and the people before they are taken to a shrine to… well let’s just say that white lite at the end of their tunnel isn’t from the beer. Now this particular ceremonial BBQ slaughter has changed in the last 10 years due to animal cruelty charges from visiting foreigners, but to this day they will still feed giant Clydesdales beer and have them trop up and down the street with dancers. No eating of the horses but everyone gets to touch the horse and celebrate the memories of old traditions.

basashi fest

(Melissa actually sent this to me before the big UK horse meat scandal. It seemed an appropriate topic to post.) 


Guest Blogging: Sticking the proverbial foot in the mouth

Hiya, all! I’d like to introduce my friend, Melissa! She’s in the JET program and is teaching English to Japanese Elementary students.

As we all know, what we think we’re saying and what’s actually coming out of our mouths can be VERY different things. She’s had a couple of those types of experiences she’d like to share with us.

“My `Oh Shit` Moments” by Melissa B.

Learning a language can be difficult. No amount of book work can prepare you for the little cultural innuendos or dirtier words that you will never find in your textbook. I for one had this happen on 2 occasions, both of which were in very inappropriate locations.

The first time I ever made an `oh shit` moment was during my first week in Japan. I was staying in a hotel near my village while my housing was being taken care of. Every morning I would eat breakfast in the hotel café where the food is prepared by elderly women behind a large stone counter. The food, though delicious, was always just too much for me to eat that early in the morning. After 3 days of only finishing 1/3 of my food one of the old ladies came up to ask me why I wasn’t able to finish the food.

Looking back I should have known better than to say what I did so loud. But at the time I thought `This is my moment to shine` `I can show all these Japanese people my mad skills.` Thinking back to my Japanese lessons in the states about everyday conversations and how many Japanese people shorten their words and sentences to show they are comfortable with the person and the language they are using. I thought I could do this with the phrase: おなかがいっぱい、(onaka ga ippai) which means `I`m full`. I took the first character and the last 2 hoping to make a short new word to express my full-ness. All I can say is that I am an idiot. The new brilliant word I used was おっぱい (oppai) which I am sure for any person who has ever had a conversation with a Japanese person under the age of 30 will know this means boobs. I didn’t. I, very loudly, proclaimed that I was OPPAI while rubbing my entire torso to show that I was indeed very oppai.

The old woman burst into laughter and so did all the business men around me. I thought they were just so shocked that an American chick knew Japanese; so I smirked and internally high-fived myself. It wasn’t until I returned to my room to check the word that I realized my mistake. I face palmed and contemplated never going to breakfast again. To this day whenever I go near that hotel the staff point to me and wave saying `Good morning Oppai-sensei`.

My second `Oh shit` was actually in one of my elementary school classes. It was our body parts lesson and I thought I would make a couple of jokes to get the kids comfortable with some of the more difficult words. We worked on the words for the head first and when we got to the chin I popped in a quick joke about our vice principal. He is a heftier guy with a couple of extra layers under his chin. I explained the best way to remember the word chin in English was to picture the vice principal and count how many chins he has. So I jokingly pointed to a picture and said `Chin, chin` Vice-principal has 2 chins.

The kids burst into laughter and even the teacher was giggling behind her hand. I thought it was because that my joke was just that funny but in reality I had given the kids enough ammo and blackmail for a year. The word chinchin, I came to learn is a childish way to say penis. The kids from that point on when asked about body parts would stick their pointer finger out from their chin to make a small penis chin, giggling saying that they had a face chinchin. I still haven’t lived that one down with my teachers. My only saving grace is that they haven’t told the vice-principal out of self-preservation.

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