“Okay, how ‘bout a sheep. Would you have sex with a sheep?” I asked.
“Mmm,” Ryan replied. “Boy sheep or girl?”
“Like it matters?”
“If it’s a boy sheep, that’s gay. Okay, let’s say I bought a hamburger, would you eat it?”
“Nope,” I said, “No way.”
“For a hundred dollars?”
This was twelve years ago. Ry and I were driving Route 1 down from San Francisco, winding through Big Sur as the sun and clouds painted patterns on the Pacific. We had loads of time to dream up sophomoric questions.
“Would you eat a person for a hundred dollars?” I replied. “Like a manburger?”
“How about for a million?” he continued. “A million bucks?”
“Still no. Would you eat your dog for a million bucks? Like if I ground up Clipper’s little ears and paws and cute nose and tail and stuffed ‘em in a sausage skin?”
“Well, maybe not the nose.”
“Okay, say we take out the nose,” I said. “Clipper sausage for a million bucks?”
“Throw in the sheep and you’ve got a deal.”
Six months later I was in Tokyo. I hadn’t eaten meat for more than a decade, and after a while, the thought had come to disgust me. I mean, who amputates a limb and then starts gnawing on it—-what’re you, a zombie? That’s pretty gross. But I also knew being a vegetarian in Japan, where even miso soup is swimming with fish stock, was basically impossible. And I had no intention of moving to this country only to sequester myself in the back of Indian restaurants and vegan cafés. So I cut a deal. I’d eat seafood. Any seafood. Okay, and eggs. And milk. But that was it.
Being a Vegetarian in Japan
So I was at this yatai near Idabashi station. It’s basically half a rundown shack with red paper lanterns and like eight stools. Maybe you’ve been there. It was night, and winter, and I was having hot sake and oden, which is a mix of steaming broth with daikon radish, fried tofu, shitake mushrooms, and a hard-boiled egg. Sure, other combinations are possible, but that’s not the point. Anyway, after about an hour chatting with other customers, the proprietor leaned over the counter. She was a sweet and horribly decrepit old lady who appeared to be about a hundred and forty. She laid a skewer of grilled chicken in front of me.
“Service,” she said. That’s Japanese for “On the house.”
I looked down at desiccated pieces of some bird’s body, stuck through with a wooden poker and tortured over a fire, like a little chicken Jesus on my plate.
“Oh, uh, thanks,” I replied. I’m nothing if not polite. It was disgusting, but I ate him, washed his little body parts down with a bottle of Asahi beer. Then I thanked the kind old lady, paid the bill, and calmly descended into Idabashi station and puked in the bathroom. So that didn’t work out too well.
What Gaijin Eat
But it’s good to make friends in Japan, and my objective’s always been to just be a regular guy. Speak Japanese, drink beer, eat . . . a bowl of lentils and broccoli. Ah, there’s the rub, hey. So when my neighbors Shun and Makiko invited me to dinner at their apartment, I went. I brought three cans of malt liquor and half a bottle of shochu. I mean, you can’t show up empty handed. “We’re having curry!” Shun proudly announced. I looked into the big earthenware pot, bubbling with carrots, onions, potatoes, and lurking somewhere deep under the surface, pieces of meat. But the last thing I wanted was to make everybody adjust for me. And I was conscious of being, you know, a foreigner.
Because here’s the ever-present dialog: You foreigners don’t shower before bed, right? You people can’t use Japanese squat toilets, right? You don’t brush your teeth after lunch, right? You people don’t like hot baths, right? You don’t eat raw fish, pickled vegetables, or rice, right? Japanese folks love to probe for ways that you are different, and Seeroi Sensei’s not trying to reinforce any stereotypes. But how’re you gonna fit in to Japan, unless you fit in? Aside from language, food’s about the number one thing people people connect with.
So when Makiko ladled out a hot bowl of rich, brown curry, I gratefully ate it and said it was good. Actually, it was good. To be honest, curry’s so damn strong it doesn’t much matter what’s in it. I’m pretty sure Japanese moms have accidentally knocked in a few kitchen sponges over the years and no family’s ever been the wiser.
Traditional Japanese Food
So that was the start of the end of my vegetarianism. What’s the emoticon for sighing? Eh, I’ll look it up later. Anyway, Ken Seeroi came to Japan with sky-high ideals and pie-eyed notions of what Japanese people were like. This, by the way, did not include the fact that they eat every damn thing that moves, and are crazy for meat. So over the years and entirely against my will, this is what I’ve wound up eating:
Snapping turtle soup
Wild boar curry
Shrimp with the head, tail, shell, and all
Sea snake soup
The flesh off a live fish still writhing and staring at me
The flesh off a live squid whistling and struggling to breathe
Pickled squid innards
Cow innards stew
Some horrible sluggy thing like a giant escargot
A mouthful of tiny fish that swim around as you swallow them
Whatever the fuck this is
And here’s the question Japanese people ask because I’m “a foreigner”: Can you eat . . . natto?”
Soybeans. Seriously. That’s your test? Did I mention I’m starting to wonder if Japanese people are actually retarded? I did? Oh, right.
Being a Vegetarian in Japan
After all that, I still didn’t eat meat, and I still don’t. I mean, except for fish, and even then I feel a bit guilty. But over the years I’ve been invited to hundreds of dinners, welcome parties, and goodbye parties, and nobody seems to notice if I go heavy on the edamame and pick around the bacon in the potato salad.
So last Friday night, I went to an end-of-the-year party with a bunch of coworkers. Hard to believe it’s that season again, but sure enough Christmas music was blaring and the pine trees were all decked out with lights and tinsel. Very traditional about their Christmas, the Japanese. I was seated at a table with three other folks, and we were slugging down beer and bantering. Things were going great, and then the waiter set down a small wooden platter with four pieces of bruschetta carefully arranged into a diamond shape. And on top of each one was a thin slice of ham. I really wanted to lift it off and stash it somewhere. Like maybe in a planter. But then everybody picked up a slice of bruschetta, and I did too, and we ate them. It didn’t kill me. Probably can’t say as much for Wilbur the pig, however. Sucks to be him.
And Michiko to my left turns and says, “You people love bruschetta, right?”
I was like, “Well, um. Some people do, I mean, I guess. But, you know, ham . . .”
“Right?” said Shohei, sitting across from us. “They love ham. And bacon, any kind of pork. For Christmas, they eat ham and turkey and sausage.” And then he launched into a story about living with an American family as an exchange student.
Everyone nodded like mad and made that Japanese sound of heeeey, which means “Oh really? Very interesting.” And I did too, of course. Because it was interesting. I’ve learned many amazing things about foreigners since coming to Japan. Including the fact that you guys eat some really weird foods. Miracle whip, Cheese Whiz, Sloppy Joes, raw mushrooms, kale, baby carrots, Hamburger Helper, macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, green bean casserole. I don’t understand it, but hey, apparently you people love that stuff. Right?