Japan has amassed significant soft power, which I would argue is only increasing. Even those that have no real interest in the country can’t get around the increasing omnipresence of anime and will have heard of Samurai and Geisha. Those flocking to the country will likely know other famous cultural icons like ‘the great wave’ by Hokusai, the infamous Shibuya crossing, cosplay culture and zen gardens on tranquil temple grounds. All these icons serve as paragons of the Japanese image as projected abroad. Yet there’s also obscure wonders that are not as well known, unsung heroes of Japanese culture that only reveal themselves when one has spent time in the country. These are the heroes that cemented my gradual falling in love with Japan through small but meaningful experiences travel guides generally pass over, and it is time they have their moment in the spotlight.
Food culture hardly is an ‘unsung hero’ when discussing Japan: most people know the stereotypes of perfectly presented sushi or the cult-like dedication of chefs to their craft. Case in point, the internationally acclaimed documentary film ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’. What in my opinion does qualify is the reach, the sheer omnipresence of this food mania. Indeed, the real unsung heroes of this particular story are not the providers but the seemingly unsatiable consumers, facilitating Japanese food culture as we know it. The dedication of Japanese chefs might be famous, the dedication of their customers is not. I was awed by the lengths that ordinary people are willing to go to, unheard of where I’m from, to reach the presumed pinnacles of flavor. If an unassuming stand is known to have the best Yakitori in the area, many people will do it the honor of a cumbersome detour without second thought. For acclaimed restaurants serving anything from multi-course kaiseki to simple rice bowls, people casually wait well over an hour in line if necessary. Unsurprisingly, even humble ramen restaurants seating no more than a handful of people at a time have been showered with Michelin stars in recognition of their culinary accomplishments.
I often felt that fine dining is considered a right rather than a privilege in Japan; indeed, it seems like a gourmand lurks in every Japanese and gets born in all non-Japanese that end up residing in the country. There is a tangible reverence for food and quality, and the importance of restaurants in daily life is unmistakable, extending to all layers of society. Nowhere was this stressed as loud and clear for me as in the University hospital of Osaka where I spent my research internship. I’ve been to major hospitals in multiple countries and while the sadness of staff- and patient restaurants may vary, all my prior experiences were instantly blown out of the water when I first stepped out of the monorail at Handai Byoin Mae. The hospital housed a cornucopia of restaurants that my very limited imagination regarding this particular domain had never even considered a possibility. There was a cafeteria specifically for staff with a staggering range of everchanging dishes that put Dutch hospitals to shame, as was the cafeteria specifically for patients and visitors. There was a Subway, a Konbini with an expanded selection of lunchboxes, a rather fancy restaurant on the top floor overlooking the nearby Expo park and a hilariously fancy restaurant whose target clientele must have been the imperial family should they accidentally visit. There even was an old-fashioned donbori stand and a specialty place selling expensive Unagi.
And this was all just the main building. On campus there were at least two cafeterias catering more to students and several free-standing eateries offering anything from a ‘quick bite’ to absolute world class: across the street of the main hospital entrance there was an unsightly grey building hiding, amongst other things, a small restaurant named ‘Ototo’ that forever changed my understanding of sushi in general and tuna in particular. Such a Walhalla of food in- and around the hospital is nice and all, but key here is that almost all the students and physicians I knew really did make eager use of it. Even the head of my department, having no time for lunch in the bowels of the hospital with us plebians, always brought a beautifully crafted bento from home. I can hardly think of a bigger contrast to the peanut butter sandwich I would savagely stuff in my face in front of a ward computer on the work floor in the Netherlands.
This blog was contributed by Tom de Hoop on May 20, 2021.