Recently, the magazine Mental Floss published an article translating travel tips for Japanese tourists to America. One of the travel tips is, “American food is flat to the taste, indifferent in the subtle difference of taste”. Commenters flipped out about this, and talked about how some American regional cuisines are quite spicy, or about the availability of a wide array of ethnic foods in the US, all of which have very different flavors.
But I think that these commenters miss the point.
In Kannoji, Ann and I ate dinner at a Joyfull. Joyfull is the Japanese equivalent of a Denny’s. It’s a big chain diner that is typically sited by the highway, and provides mostly unimaginative, corporate “Western” food. At the Joyfull, I had a green salad, and on the salad was a tomato wedge.
I want you to imagine what a tomato wedge would taste like at a Denny’s. It would be a piece of red pulp, there for color interest. Its flavor would only very remotely resemble that of a tomato. Now, I want you to imagine a fresh garden tomato, red, ripe, and warmed by the summer sunshine. Imagine its intense tomato flavor.
If the Denny’s tomato is a 1 on a scale, and the summer garden tomato is a 10 on this scale, then the tomato I ate at the Joyfull was an 8. Not quite as good as a sun-kissed garden tomato, but very flavorful and definitely tomato-y.
This is the way food tastes like in Japan. It tastes intensely like it is supposed to. Meats taste like their respective meats. All fruits and vegetables have an amazing flavor. I ate a strawberry that was out of this world – like a local, not-shipped strawberry; only large, like a straw-no-flavor, trucked from Mexico berry.
When I lived in Japan before, I lived in an urban area. On Shikoku, we walked through a lot of suburbia, exurbia, and rural areas. I saw a lot of food being grown. The farming methods are intensive. Water is carefully channeled off the mountainsides and directed into fields and rice paddies simply through gravity. Rows of vegetables are started covered in black plastic to protect them from bugs and make weeding easy. Hothouses are covered in clear plastic to be able to grow things year-round and also protect the crops from pests. I never once saw someone spray or smelled the chemical residue of a pesticide. It may not be that everything is grown organically, but it looks like it. Through our time in Shikoku, it was spring, so we saw rice being planted and it growing into vigorous green shoots on nearly any level surface big enough to accommodate a small cultivator.
With this form of agriculture, wildlife abounds. All those waterways have herons and egrets standing in them, fishing, Butterflies flit by like they used to when I was a kid, and we still had butterflies.
And then: for all the houses we saw in suburbia and exurbia – I never saw a lawn. If you had no yard at all, you grew flowers or had strings of sugar snap peas working their way from a 8″ x 24″ pot. But if you did have a yard, you had flowers, and a vegetable garden, or fruit trees. If a yard as big as our suburban plot were in Shikoku, the front yard would have about four orange trees (unless we wanted to grow an ornamental pine or cherry blossom tree), and the backyard would be a rice paddy, or the whole thing would be a vegetable garden.
On the way to Sankakuji, I saw a neighborhood produce vending machine. Vending machines are ubiquitous in Japan. This one, though, was for people who grew more produce than they could consume themselves, to benefit the neighborhood. Exactly how these things work, I’m not sure. If you get a dozen oranges from it for 300 yen, I don’t know how the money gets split between the owner of the vending machine, and the orange grower, and how you get your money out of it. But I have seen these kinds of vending machines in Japan before. It’s a way to deal with surplus produce, without having to go to the hassle of running a farm stand.
Also, all over Shikoku, you see self-serve rice hulling booths. If you have grown some rice on your property, you can bring it to the rice hulling booth by the side of the road. You dump your rice in, make your payment, and you get out your rice brown, or completely polished, depending on your setting.
If nearly everyone then is a farmer, it’s not surprising that very little produce appears to be imported. The only thing I saw that was imported was bananas – little bananas from the Philippines, big bananas from Ecuador. I’ve read on-line that 60% of the food in Japan is imported. Maybe dairy products, as I never saw a dairy cow. Maybe in the cities. But I saw little evidence of imported food in Shikoku. People ate local produce, ate local eggs, ate fish that came from local seas – very little beef, pork or chicken.
So, when the Japanese are warned that American food is bland, they don’t mean, “not spicy”. They mean, “not flavorful”. Japanese food is flavorful. It isn’t grown so it can be trucked 2000 miles from Mexico. It’s grown so it will taste good.
And the only lawns I saw were in parks, at recreational facilities. Never in front of someone’s private home. What if we spent as much time and money cultivating food as we do on lawn care? What would our food supply look like, taste like, then?