Japan has no breakfast. That’s a natural fact. So a lot of mornings, I find myself munching down cold rice balls in the park, simply because there’s nowhere else to sit in this bloody country. It really speaks volumes about a place when it’s specifically designed not to provide seats at bus stops or even a low wall where you could just rest for a moment. But nope; throughout Japan, there’s a lack of horizontal surfaces. This keeps salarymen, housewives, and children in school uniforms shuffling forward, wandering the streets like an army of exhausted zombies. Well, wheels of progress and all.
So a “park” may be your last and only option, although most are no more than plots of sand and weeds with a play slide and some tetanus-inducing monkey bars. I’m lucky the one near my tiny apartment has an ancient wooden bench, so I don’t have to sit on the swing set. Occasionally stray kittens come around, and I toss them bits of salmon or mackerel. Who says it’s hard to make friends in Japan?
Japanese Breakfast at Work
Of course, I tried to eat at my desk, until the manager yelled at me for spending thirty seconds quietly scarfing down a handful of gruel, after which I took to stopping briefly at McDonald’s near the station, until the branch closed. I would’ve thought my Egg McMuffin consumption alone kept them in business, but apparently not. Please come back. I promise to order more hash browns.
Japanese Breakfast at Home
Now, you might say, Ken, why don’t you just eat at home? And that would seem a reasonable question, until you consider the appointed Japanese lunch moment isn’t until 12:40, and I have to leave my space capsule of an apartment at six-fifty to make it to stupid work. Me go almost six hours with no food? What am I, a camel? Of course, I tried intermittent fasting, and that was great when my job involved pretending to write curricula while surfing Amazon all day, but lately I’m back in the schools doing songs and dances with the kids, which is what passes for teaching English in Japan. So unless you want to see the world’s slowest rendition of Head-Shoulders-Knees-and-Toes, you’d be wise to provide me with a minimum of rice, tuna salad, pickled cucumber, and seaweed. Plus maybe a hot can of corn soup. Is that too much to ask? I think not.
Sadly, Japanese breakfast just isn’t a thing. I was informed of this on my first trip to Kyoto, sixteen years ago. I was staying in a flophouse, which Japanese folks call a minshuku, because it sounds more exotic. There was an old frog running the place, squatting on the tatami floor in a lime-green track suit writing postcards, so I asked her where I could get some breakfast.
“Don’t waste your money,” she croaked, “just grab a rice ball at the convenience store.”
“I was thinking more like a scenic café where I could sit outside, read a book, and enjoy some brunch,” I ventured.
“We Japanese don’t do that,” she replied. “It’s not California, you know.”
And they say Japan’s an advanced nation. Anyhow, say hi to your amphibian relatives for me.
Searching for Japanese Breakfast
But here’s the weird thing about my brain—even though it knows proper Japanese breakfast doesn’t exist, it still sends me out every morning full of hope, thinking Maybe there’s a wonderful buffet right around the corner, full of cheese-eggs, bacon, and crispy waffles, and you’ve just missed it. Then I remember, Yeah no, I walk that way every day and there’s nothing but a soup kitchen for the homeless. But my brain’s like, Dude, gotta stay positive. Maybe they upgraded overnight and now it’s an iHop. Now go out and hunt for brunch. If I were a caveman, I’d be dead for sure.
Finding Japanese Breakfast
And it was during one such weekend constitutional that I was stopped by a family of four, who appeared to be tourists.
“Excuse me,” said the father, “but do you speak English?”
Now, can I just take a moment to say what an incredibly polite way that is to approach someone you don’t know in a foreign country? Because it is. And conversely to note that absolutely no Japanese person has ever considered using such a phrase, despite the fact the vast majority of “foreigners” here don’t have English as a first language. But I digress.
“Sure,” I said. “How can I help?”
“Do you know where we can find some breakfast?” he asked, with a note of desperation. “We’ve looked everywhere.”
“Yeah, your best bet’s really some 7-Eleven rice balls, cans of corn soup, and a bench amidst the sand and weeds.”
is what I wanted to say. But because I’m Japanese and we have to appear polite and all, I laid out some options:
- Find a “family restaurant,” like Denny’s or Joyfull. There you can get a breakfast that looks suspiciously like lunch and dinner, basically rice, grilled fish, and miso soup.
- Look for a hotel with a buffet, such as the Hilton. Sometimes you can obtain an incredibly overpriced meal there.
- Locate a McDonald’s, Starbucks, or some or some other overseas chain attempting to bring civilization to Japan. Local fast-food places imitating overseas chains also work.
- Head to a sightseeing area, where if you’re lucky, you might find a shop offering breakfast targeted at foreign tourists.
- Hold out till eleven, when restaurants open for lunch.
The Other Meals of the Day
Now, Japan’s pretty great at night. We’ve got dinner dialed in tight. Lunch? Yeah sure, quick and solid. But breakfast? Brunch? Forget about it. And I’m not gonna lie: I love brunch. it’s the best meal of the day, second only to dinner. And maybe lunch, or possibly breakfast. But look, I get it. Monday through Friday, we gotta get to work and be yelled at, then yell at somebody else. We’re busy, in other words. But the weekend? Come on, God bestowed brunch of mankind as a symbol of His infinite compassion, replete with scrambled eggs, salsa, and home fries. Plus a mimosa with a tiny umbrella. That’s all in the Old Testament; just gotta read into the Aramaic a bit. After all, what kind of heathens don’t eat brunch?
The Japanese kind, apparently. So I called this girl named Nana on Sunday Morning and asked her about getting some. Breakfast, that is.
“We Japanese prefer to eat at home,” said Nana on Sunday Morning.
“So I’ve heard,” I said. “Your special people.” Although it didn’t sound so snide, since I mumbled it under my breath.
“You know I only need toast and coffee,” she said.
“Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with the concept,” I suggested. “It’s brunch, like if breakfast and lunch got together and had a child. Picture a terrace overlooking the ocean, sunlight on the water, a gleaming porcelain saucer of eggs Benedict, with an English muffin and thick slice of ham gently floating in a sea of Hollandaise sauce, aside buttery cubes of potatoes, bagels with lox and capers, seasonal strawberries in cream, fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice . . .”
“Oh, that would disrupt my meals for the day.”
“Woman, have you no romance?”
“I don’t eat much.”
“You don’t wha?—Eat muu—the fuck!—remember last week, the barbecue restaurant? You were like a lioness tearing into an antelope! For three hours I thought I was in the Serengeti.”
“But if we go out for breakfast, I have to put on make-up.”
Dinner in Japan, After All
Well, that killed that, since apparently the only thing worse than missing the day’s most important meal is seeing a Japanese woman as she actually appears. Whatever. I gave up and we made a date for the following night.
Then the next day, when evening rolled around, I bought a cheap can of lemon chu-hi at 7-Eleven and went to the swing set outside her apartment, amidst more sand and weeds, to wait for the conclusion of the make-upping ritual, since there was nowhere else to sit. It was fine weather, with the sunset warming the autumn leaves. I love fall in Japan. So romantic.
And on my can of lemon-flavored booze, the Asahi beverage company had emblazoned an encouraging Japanese message: “Your weekend reward!” That made me happy, because I deserved a weekend reward, especially since it was Monday. Heh, weekends used to be brunch with tablecloths and waiters carrying trays full of champagne and orange juice, and now it’s come down to chu-hi with stray cats in the park. Well, you had one citrusy cocktail, you pretty much had them all, is what I always say. To the cats. And who needs spinach-and-mushroom omelettes with a side of sausage patties anyway? Gotta keep the ol’ cholesterol in check. No wonder Japanese folks live so long. Although life without brunch, eh, you gotta wonder if it’s worth it.