My friend Karen, while in college, once sang this golden oldie by The Vapors while waiting in line at the college cafeteria. A person nearby (who was not Asian, btw) told her she was offended by the song. This one anecdote tells you a lot about Bryn Mawr College. But very little about Japan.
Since I too can look up things on Wikipedia, I discovered that “Turning Japanese” is actually a song about youthful alienation and becoming something you didn’t expect. Well, if that is the case, many of us are Japanese. And intrinsic to this image of being “Japanese” is the idea — not too far removed from reality in Tokyo, at least — of a life perpetually on the go, snatching sustenance, T. Rex-like, any way one can, greedily and quickly.
That’s the instinct that coaxed ramen from China into Japan. But it’s not the only Japanese “street food” out there. Unlike Thai street food, which is, quite literally, food enjoyed or at least purchased while on the street, a lot of Japanese street food hews closer to the Western idea: portable food that you can eat while walking (Thais hate to eat while moving. Don’t know why, but that’s the way it is).
A good snapshot of this type of Japanese street food can be had on the 200 meter-or-so walk up to Sensoji Temple in the Asakusa district of Tokyo. This walk melds the everything from the expected taiyaki (baked sea bream-shaped cakes stuffed with red bean paste) and senbei (freshly-made rice crackers, often wrapped in nori seaweed) to handfuls of surprising delights like lacquered, grilled chunks of sweet potato and aisumonaka, which are basically ice cream sandwiches. Yum!
Kibidango-mochi are grilled rice cakes dipped in a sweet sesame powder; as with everything that is served on the skewer, you are meant to eat it right there and return the skewer, which kind of ruins my whole point about this type of Japanese street food. Oh well! There is manju (steamed Chinese-style buns stuffed with savory fillings like minced pork) and agemanju (fried buns), in this case usually stuffed with something sweet and for that reason, infinitely more popular — the most popular stand boasts every type of filling from pumpkin to green tea to cherry.
Nothing, however, touches my favorite, the bizarrely-named wazatokowashi, deep-fried, light, fluffy dough cooked in front of your eyes and bearing an elusively salty flavor reminiscent of Cheetos. There is nothing better than Cheetos.
Hokkaido has its own kind of street food. A good city to sample it is Otaru which, while seen as “too commercial” by my Japanese friends, is at least charming, tourist-friendly and has these mini-stands set up by smart seafood wholesalers catering to people who simply can’t wait until they get home for a taste of the Japanese ocean. The grills are inside, just past the doorway, fronted by tables where diners cluster like hobos over chopsticks and bottles of soy sauce.
Yes — not only is that hulking big sea snail thingie (sazae) available, but so are scallops grilled with miso, giant sea crab legs, clams and oysters, cooked in their own juices. It is good, and it is cheap. A shame that it is also freezing.
An unlikely street food that has almost completely obliterated its humble origins is a food that everyone knows and associates with fine dining: sushi. Believe it or not, it started out as a street food in Edo (basically ancient Tokyo), where fresh fish is in abundance and easy to obtain. Today, Edo-style sushi basically refers to nigiri, but not the big ol’ slabs of fish flesh that are so trendy in a lot of sushi bars abroad. What makes sushi such a great experience in Otaru is that it has taken a cue from Sapporo’s numerous ramen alleys and created its own “Sushiya Dori”, a street lined almost completely with sushi bars. Heaven on earth or what?
One thing you might find at your sushi bar (but is definitely not a street food): shirako, which I’m told means “white children”. My friend Yukari first introduced it to me when I moved to Tokyo, but waited until I finished my bowl of creamy, cloudy glob drenched in ponzu to tell me what it was. Some other Japanese people (who work in tourism PR, go figure!) then tried to tell me it was not what it was, but guys, I know how to Google. It’s the sperm sacs of male cod. See, it’s hard to pull a fast one on me (if I have an Internet connection).
Luckily, it tastes much better than human sperm. Sorry, humans! Better luck next time.