Archive for February, 2010

All you can eat

“I have no idea how anybody could get fat in Japan,” I said to my wife as we stepped out for a walk the other weekend.

“Overweight, maybe, but not fat like obese fat. If you’re obese, you actually need to eat a serious amount of calories just to maintain your weight, and I don’t know how you would even do that here. The food is just too healthy. There’s too many vegetables. The portions are smaller. Even fast food is healthy over here, and the chocolates don’t seem to have many calories. And most of the kids at school do about two or three hours of sports every day. It’s nuts. And yet somehow a lot of the foreigners over here still manage to pile on the pounds! I don’t know how they do it.”

Famous last words. Famous last words!

About an hour later, we discovered Chateraise, a chain of Japanese cake shops that specialise in lovingly created, beautifully presented ice-cream, cakes, chocolate and wine. And upstairs, in a bright, airy loft-style dining room we discovered their all-you-can-eat buffet (or ‘viking’ as these things are called in Japan).

Arrayed on one side of a table in the middle of the room was a tantalising selection of breads, cold meats, smoked fish, various salads, different types of bread, and all sorts of hot dishes, such as curry and rice, or slow-cooked pork-belly with white beans – each one prepared from good quality ingredients combined to create subtle fusions of flavour. On the other side of the table was an equally varied assortment of cakes, pastries and puddings, and, on a side table, various jugs of teas, coffee and juices.

Disbelievingly, we took our seats and made our order: 890 yen for the buffet; another 200 yen for the dessert buffet (the same price, by the way, as a single slice of cake downstairs); another 100 for the drink bar; and another 100 for a glass of wine. The total, a bit under 1300 yen, adds up to about $14 or £9 at the time of writing.

So then we headed for the buffet, tentatively loading our plates, nervously hoping not to stand out among the willowy figures of our fellow diners as the greedy fat munchers that we so obviously are. Two plates later – slices of beef, ham, salad, pasta salad, fried mushrooms, potato fries, chicken in batter, chicken stew, omelette, sausages and little sweetcorn/bread canapés – I began to relax as I noticed the other diners doing the same. A bowl of curry, a slice of chocolate cake, a slice of cheesecake, a chocolate pancake roll and a custard pudding later and I could hardly walk.

Towards the end of our meal, just before we left, I noticed two new diners come in: a tiny woman and a very slim man. In the space of about ten minutes they started by eating three or four plates of dessert, before moving on to the cold meats and hot dishes. I have no idea where they put that food.

Anyway, the following week we managed to find ourselves walking past a different branch of Chateraise. Then we found ourselves walking into it and ordering another slap-up, tip-top delicious meal. This time, our passage to indigestion was made more interesting by some of the other customers.

“I bet they’re going to nick some of the desserts,” said my wife, nodding in the direction of a table behind me.

“Who, them?” I replied, turning round to find a wholesome-looking mother and daughter, on their way back from some Saturday morning horse-riding, to judge by their jodhpurs. “Don’t be ridiculous. You honestly think they’re going to nick something? They look completely respectable, and besides, nobody nicks stuff in Japan.”

“Whatever. I think they’re going to nick the desserts. She’s just come back with four puddings. Let’s just see if they leave the containers behind,” she replied with what I thought was a pretty unjustifiable air of smugness given that we had yet to actually count the containers.

Except it turned out to be a perfectly justifiable air of smugness, as it turns out. Walking back to the buffet table to load up on more curry rice, I noticed them sharing some suspicious-looking furtive looks; on my way back I heard the almost comically loud noise of a bag being not-so-surreptitiously zipped up under the table. When they left there were, sure enough, no pudding containers.

So maybe that’s where tiny Japanese women put their food.

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Stop idling!

That’s the advice that a lot of my students gave when I asked them to make posters about environmental conservation. It’s pretty sound advice, too, for a global population that is collectively sitting on its hands in the hope that we won’t actually all be underwater in a few years, having raped the planet of all its resources. But what they actually mean is turn off your car engines. Which is still good advice, but probably isn’t the first thing you’d think of if someone told you to stop idling.

Anyway, I think this ‘stop idling’ business is interesting for a couple of reasons. The first is that ‘stop idling’ is a phrase that comes straight out of the dictionary. A lot of my students have electronic Japanese-English dictionaries (such as this one, for those of you who don’t mind a bit of strong language and a flashback to before I got married). Whenever they want to write something in English, they’ll look up the words they want to use and then just plug them into a sentence or add them together without any understanding of how grammar and syntax and context come together to create meaning. I mean, ‘idling’ is a word that can technically be used to describe a car engine that’s running. But without context it’s not the obvious one. (Another weird bit of advice that my students wanted to give is to ‘classify your rubbish’ – owing to the dictionary definition of a Japanese word that means to separate your rubbish in preparation for recycling.) And so you get these sorts of over-literal misappropriations of the English language that end up all over Japanese T-shirts and posters, and from there to all the hilarious Japlish blogs. Which is as good a demonstration of the lexical approach to language learning as any, I think.

But I think it’s more interesting for another reason. At first, I didn’t really understand why my students thought the best thing you can do to stop global warming is to not to leave your car engine running. Who leaves their car engine running? When? When you’re waiting at a traffic light? Surely they don’t mean that you should switch off your engine while waiting at the lights. But then I realised that what they’re talking about is something I’ve only seen in Japan: people just getting out of their cars and leaving the engine running while they pop into a shop or bank or whatever. It’s not something I’ve seen outside of Japan because in most places outside of Japan, if you leave your car unattended, with the keys in and the engine running and your satnav system and cutting edge stereo blaring, you would worry that someone might drive off with it.

The other day there were announcements on all of the local tannoys that someone had just robbed a post-office about 6 miles away, using a knife, and shortly after the announcements a police patrol car took up residence in the school car park. When I lived in London I just lived under the perpetual assumption that a nearby store or bank was being robbed at knife- or gunpoint.

So I don’t know whether Japan has more or less crime than anywhere else, but – and this is what my students’ advice made me realise – it certainly feels safer.

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