Big in Japan Pt 1:Food
The phrase “big in Japan” refers to something(often a band) that is popular in Japan but is relatively unknown in the west. However, I use the phrase to refer to something from the United States and known there but has an outsized presence in Japan and is an integral part of Japanese culture. Well, these things may originally be American but they have become thoroughly Japanese.
In the first part of my three part series, I will talk about how American food, restaurants, and convenience stores has changed in context and as well as ingredients when they came to Japan. Some of Japan`s most popular restaurants and convenience stores were originally American companies. The convenience store Lawson and the Donut Shop, Mr.Donut are extremely widespread in Japan but only have one store each in the US. They are both now Japanese companies and most people are unaware of their American origins. You might be familiar with Mr.Donut because virtually all the Mr. Donuts shops in the US were taken over by the Northeast favorite, Dunkin Donuts. Other restaurants, convenience stores, and food products are still culturally important in the US but in they have gained a unique place in Japanese society. They have gone from being American to being firmly Japanese. They have thrived while others failed because they adapted to fit into Japanese culture. America and Japan are different societies, what works well in one might not work well in the other. You will notice a preference for seasonal and regional ingredients in Japan. As well as the importance of foodstuffs such as seafood,rice,soysauce ,mayonnaise and matcha.I will talk about two fast-food restaurants,one coffee shop, one convenience store, and four types of food and how they have become ingrained into Japanese culture.
KFC is one of the most popular and widespread western fast-food restaurants in Japan. KFC stands out as it has been successfully marketed as a Christmastime tradition. It is very common for families to enjoy a bucket of KFC around Christmas. You often have to place your order months in advance as their fried chicken gets sold out quickly during this time. The reason for its yuletide popularity is the reason for most things, capitalism. In the 1970s, the manager of the first KFC in Japan marketed buckets of KFC to be eaten as a Christmas tradition. Since Japan does not have a large Christian population, it did not have any traditions or customs associated with Christmas at that time. KFC filled that gap. Fried Chicken supplemented Turkey, often the main meat eaten on holidays in the US which was(still is) difficult to find in Japan. Since I have been living in Japan, I have eaten KFC every year for the Christmas season. It is much better than my usual American Christmas tradition of arguing with my family. Also, I think we can all agree, fried chicken is way better than turkey. Turkey , step your game up.
McDonald’s is by far the most common fast food restaurant in Japan. It is called Makku or Makudo in Japanese. A McDonalds is always lurking around the corner wherever you are. I often think of it as a sort of an American Embassy, I can go there and get a little taste of home when I am homesick. However, McDonalds in Japan are not the same as ones in America. The reason for McDonalds success in Japan is they adapted their food to be more inline with Japanese taste preferences. They added less salt and made the portion sizes smaller. A large size McDonalds drink in Japan is roughly equivalent to an American small. Japanese staples like seafood, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, and (just recently) rice are combined with American fast food to create things like the Ebi Filet-O (Shrimp filet sandwich), Teriyaki burger, and rice burgers(Rice paddies substitute for burger buns). There are even seasonal foods like Sakura(Cherry blossoms) floats and burgers with eggs to celebrate Tsukimi, the moon-viewing festival in Mid Autumn. They also have a night menu where starting from 5 pm you can get Bai(double versions) of your favorite sandwiches. For example, you can get a 2 filets with your Ebi Filet-O or a Big Mac with four patties. There are also limited-time items such as the Samurai Mac, a soy sauce flavored burger that comes in three varieties and is currently available in Japan. If you want to see a full menu in English click here. There are also photos of the menu below. Another difference is that McDonalds in Japan are a popular hang-out spot for students to do homework or for businessmen to get work done. There are usually outlets at the tables to charge phones or laptops and most stores are opened all night or at least until very late. The workers are always kind and the restaurants are very clean so it makes a great place to chill. Finally, many McDonalds offer McDelivery where you can call or place an order online and a worker on a red moped will bring your food to your house. Not every branch offers this service but most of the ones in major cities do. I used it a few time and my food always arrived quickly and still warm. It makes me feel like a debauched roman emperor, demanding an extravagant and colorful banquet of food be delivered to my palace(one bedroom apartment) in a red chariot adored with a golden M .
Below I have a video of me trying 4 items from McDonalds in Japan. My apologies for the quality of the video, Mugi the Intern was in charge of filming and as you can see, he has lots to still learn.
Teriyaki Burger- a Burger with Teriyaki sauce
Spicy Chicken Sandwich- a chicken sandwich with Chile sauce(I ordered fried chicken but the cashier misheard me, getting orders wrong is one American McDonald`s tradition that they kept)
Potatoes and bacon pie- unlike an Apple pie from McDonalds, it has potatoes ,onions, and bacon inside.
Samurai Mac -a limited time soy sauce flavored burger with onions, tomatoes, bacon, and cheese.
My Fiancé is a big Starbucks fan so we often go. In fact, the first gift I ever gave her was a special New Jersey Starbucks Mug. Starbucks in Japan offer many of same beverages as the American ones but they do have seasonal drink flavors such as chestnut favored drinks in the fall, gingerbread in the winter, Sakura(Cherry blossoms) in the spring, and watermelon in the summer time. There are often interesting and colorful special limited time only beverages. The thing that I find most interesting is that there are 27 regional landmark Starbuck stores in Japan that been designed to blend well with the historical buildings, nature, and culture of the area they are in. I will highlight five of the ones that I think are the most interesting. In Kyoto, there is one called Kyoto Ninenzaka Yasaka Chaya Starbucks and the only clue that is it a Starbucks is small neutral colored sign with the name and logo.A traditionally Japanese house was retrofitted into a Starbucks to keep with the aesthetics of the numerous Taisho period (1912-1926)buildings in the area. The area is very popular for its temples and historic look. This first and I believe only starbucks with Tatami (woven straw mats) floors. There is also the Kyoto Sanjo-Ohashi Starbucks in Kyoto, this one overlooks the Kamogawa river and has a traditional style balcony designed to keep people cool. Then there is the Kobe Kitano Ijinkan Starbucks made to resemble Kitano Ijinkan, historic western style houses lived in by the foreigner community in Kobe. Then there is Dazaifu Tenmangu Omotesando shop near the Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine in Fukuoka that uses a traditional Japanese carpentry style called Kigumi that uses interlocking joints and no metal to keep planks of wood together. If you like Edo style buildings, the Kawagoe Kanetsuki-dori Starbucks is designed to fit in with the famous Edo period(1603-1867) Kurazukuri (Clay warehouse )buildings in Kawagoe,Saitama. I have been to this one and it is very beautiful. I enjoyed a limited time Halloween Red Night Frappuccino which came with a free Masquerade mask there.
In Japan, people actually will pick up dinner at a 7-Eleven. Could you imagine a person purchasing dinner at an American 7-Eleven? It would be almost certainly be seen as a cry for help. In Japan, 7-Elevens offers many high-quality products far beyond the mere soft drinks and beef jerky offered by its American counterpart. Most people in Japan live in cities which makes building a high number of large grocery stores impracticable. Convivence stores take up less space and are easily accessible for busy businessmen who work late hours and don`t have a lot of time. The three major convenience stores in Japan are Lawsons,Family Mart, and 7-Eleven. Most people in Japan have a preference but I will talk about 7-Eleven as it is the most well-known in America.
7-Eleven has the most stores in Japan of the big three and is known for offering its high-quality branded products. All of its branded food labels are in both Japanese and English, making it easy for foreigners to buy. Japan has more 7-Elevens than any other country (30 percent of them ) and a Japanese company now owns 70 percent of the company. They sell books, medicine, hot food, tickets to events, snacks, alcohol, and even produce. You can pay your bills at the counter and mail packages. Convenience stores in Japan general are a bit like small grocery stores except as you can see they offer way more than just food and drinks. There is a whole wall full of bento boxes with dishes like pasta, sandwiches, ramen and so on that can be heated up by the cashier. A section is devoted to Onigiri, a rice ball wrapped in seaweed with a savory filling of some kind. They are great breakfast food but can be eaten at any time of the day. My favorite is tuna and mayonnaise. There is also a huge array of hot foods at the front that stray far away from the unhygienic image of cracked blackened hotdog that has been on that rolling machine since the beginning of time in American 7-Elevens. You can order Oden, a soup-like dish with different ingredients you can choose such as boiled eggs, Radishes, fishcakes, and so on. You can also order fried chicken, corndogs(American Dogs in Japanese), sausages on sticks, and much more. It is very common for people in Japan to purchase a meal from a convenience store when they are on the go as they are everywhere and convenient. Finally, something that I find interesting is that the theme song for 7-Elevens in Japan is a cover of Daydream Believer, a song by the Monkees. It also just so happens that I only concert I ever been to was a Monkee`s concert(I was bored one day and they were in town so I decided to go see this very elderly Beatles copycat group live). I often hear the theme song when I am in my local store getting snacks or during one of their commercials.
Ps: If you are traveling in Japan, you make have difficulty finding ATMs where that will accept your foreign card but the red ATMs at 7 Elevens have always worked for me. Since the stores are open 24/7 and there are over 20,000 branches in Japan, they are great place to withdraw cash. You can change the language to English and the withdrawal fee is about 2 dollars.
Pizza is a popular fast food option like in most places in the world but Pizza in Japan often has toppings Americans would think of as sacrilegious. When pizza first came to Japan it was adapted to appeal to Japanese tastes. The most popular pizza in Japan according to the 2017 survey are Margarita, Seafood, and Bacon and Potato. Common toppings also include cod roe, mayonnaise, corn, clams, and seaweed. Corn and Mayonnaise are . Cheese pizza is well liked but real pepperoni pizza is difficult to find(Trust me, I am always on the hunt). Pizza from a Costco in Japan is the best and closest to American pizza that I have had in Japan. It was like being back home again. Dominos and Pizza hut are popular chains here but I keep my distance to avoid being excommunicated by my Italian-American Grandfather. There are many great local Pizza shops that make much better Pizza than those two “Pizza Restaurants”. If you visit Japan, keep an open mind and try something new! Bacon and Potato Pizza tastes great and seafood compliments the flavors of the cheese and marinara sauce.
Tacos as Americans know them are not commonly eaten in Japan. There only ten tacos bells, all of them in Tokyo and Osaka. As a Lover of the Taco Bell, I have made pilgrimages to three of the locations in Japan. Chinese food, Indian food, Italian food, and American fast food are the most popular ethnic cuisines in Japan with Tex/Mex and Mexican food far behind. However, there is a Japanese version of Tacos called Taco rice that is one of Okinawa`s most famous dishes.Okinawa is a prefecture made up of a group of islands in the south of Japan which houses the majority of American military bases in Japan. The US military has had a strong impact on Okinawan culture and life as it controlled the islands from end of WWII until 1972 when it was handed back to the Japanese government. Bases still take up 18% percent of the land and US soldiers are a common sight on the islands. Taco Rice is one of the ways in which the US bases have influenced Okinawan culture. It was created in the 1980s to feed marines stationed in Okinawa who wanted American-style Mexican food. The ingredients of a standard taco; beef, lettuce, tomatoes, and shredded cheese are put on top of a bed of white rice to make Taco Rice. Rice was substituted for taco shells/tortillas to make it cheaper and less time-intensive. The dish has spread outside of Okinawa and most Japanese people have tried it at some point in their life. I asked my students in my English classes and the majority have tried taco rice while almost none have tried standard tacos.
We are all familiar with Kit Kats but did you know in Japan there are is a wide variety of unique flavors? The reason why Kit Kats has caught on while other American chocolate brands have failed is because its name in Japanese, Kitto Katto is similar to the Japanese phrase for good luck, Kitto Katsu. The direct translation is “you will surely win”. As a result, it is common to give students preparing for an entrance exam test to wish them luck on their test. The packaging is often made of high quality materials to make it more presentable to give as a gift. Japan have become world-famous for their delicious KitKat varieties that can be found nowhere else. You can try flavors like matcha, strawberry cheesecake, and Sakura(cherry blossoms). My personal favorite is the matcha flavor. For the more adventurous , there are Wasabi, apple vinegar, and Sake flavored KitKats. I tried the Sake ones before, they contain real Sake and taste pretty good. There are seasonal ones such as Sakura ones in the springtime as well as regional varieties of Kit Kats that employ famous local ingredients to attract tourists. For example, there are melon flavored Kit Kats that use the famous Yubari melons from Hokkaido.
This last entry, you might not have ever heard before. This is an obscure American dessert that has taken on a new life in Japan. Coffee Jelly is a dessert made by turning coffee into jelly. It is often added to another dessert such as a parfait or milkshake. It was once a New England staple but now is on the verge of going the way of the dinosaurs . It was introduced into Japan in the early 20th century and was liked and it is still around to this da. It`s common enough that you can buy it at Starbucks in Japan. On occasion, I will buy a Coffee Jelly dessert from a convenience store. It is a delicious and refreshing treat ,it is a mystery why its popularity is limited to just the homeland of the Patriots in the United States.
You can still try it if you don’t live in New England or Japan. It is easy to make, It just takes coffee ,sugar, water and a gelatin mix. Here is a recipe to make Japanese Style Coffee Jelly.