Expensive fruit

Fruit is very expensive in Japan. You may have heard of stories like two melons being sold for more than US$20,000. Alas, I can’t tell you what a multi-million yen melon tastes like, but even day-to-day in the grocery store, I’m put off by the prices (and I lived in Western Australia, for goodness’ sake). Apples, for example, are often 298 yen each. To do a very rough estimate in dollars (US, CAD, AUS), divide the price in yen by 100. So that means about $2.98 for a single apple.

I very much love mikkan (tangerines that are similar to Clementines), which are cheap and abundant in winter, but they’re disappearing from the stores now. So sad. I had expected more cheap summery fruit to appear, but not yet…

Anyway, some photos of more everyday fruit pricing is below, subject of course to seasonal availability!

Some new green eats

Recently, I had the pleasure of trying four new foods for the first time, and they all happened to be green. They are:

  1. Umi budō
  2. Konnyaku sashimi
  3. Soramame
  4. Goya
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Umi budo, “grapes” of the sea

I’ll start with umi budō, as it’s my favourite (and the rarest). Umi budō means “sea grapes” in Japanese. It’s also known as green cavier or the scientific name caulerpa lentillifera. Umi budō, a beautiful seaweed, grows in Okinawa and in other parts of southeast Asia. It’s difficult to get, even in Japan, but one of our nearby supermarkets recently had it as part of a special Okinawan display. It wasn’t as expensive as I expected: 40 grams for 300 yen (less than $3 US). So, what does it taste like, you might ask? It’s very much caviar-like: when you bite into the gorgeous tiny bubbles, you taste the sea. Salty, yes, which is why 40g goes a long way (plus seaweed is super-lightweight). You can eat it plain, or in salad, or with vinegar, or on rice, or wrapped with nori seaweed.  Regardless, it’s amazingly tasty and highly recommended if you ever get the chance to try it.

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That unique texture of konnyaku sashimi

Konnyaku sashimi is konnnyaku prepared to eaten like sashimi. Yup. Oh, you want more information? Well, konnyaku is made from a taro-like plant (think yam or potato ish), ground up and mixed with water. (More details from the Just Hungry blog, if you’re curious.) It’s popular as a health food, as it has barely any calories and tons of fibre. Careful, though, the texture makes it a choking hazard! It’s used in many traditional dishes in its cooked form. The kind that you cook is usually a purplish, greyish colour. I’ve had konnyaku often, but never in this raw form, eaten as sashimi (that is, a slice of raw something: fish, meat, veggie). It’s green for some reason; not quite sure why. I think seaweed is added for the colour? The raw konnyaku is lighter and thinner than the usual block kind, but it’s definitely still chewy. We ate it dipped in a bit of soy sauce and wasabi, just like you would with fish. I really liked this, but as with konnyaku more generally, I can’t eat more than a few pieces at a time because of the texture.

Soramame out of the pod on the plate in the middle
Soramame out of the pod on the plate in the middle
Soramame pods
Soramame pods

Soramame means “sky beans”, and apparently they’re the same as fava or broad beans. They’re in season in Japan in spring, so I wanted to take advantage while they’re in the grocery stores. The beans can be used many different ways, but we just grilled them in the pods until the outside was a bit toasted and then popped out the beans and ate them with a tiny bit of matcha (green tea powder) salt. They’re similar to edamame, but obviously bigger and more like lima beans in taste and texture.

Goya is another famous food from Okinawa, also known as bitter gourd. Yeah, it’s definitely bitter, but I enjoy “green” tastes, so I really liked it. We used the blanching method described on the wonderful Just Hungry blog, quickly boiling the goya before using it in a stir fry. Goya seems to be around in the grocery stores a fair bit, so I will buy it again!

Something I don’t like about Japan

I quite like this sign; I wish it had more of a deterrent effect.
I quite like this anti-smoking public awareness sign; I wish it had more of a deterrent effect.

Every place has good aspects and not-so-good aspects. Pros and cons. There is much I love about Japan, but naturally there are many things about which I cannot take a culturally relativist stance. For example: the cultural of overwork (a close cousin of bureaucratic inefficiency, I believe). Also: the exclusion of women from positions of power (social, political, corporate), prevalence of harassment, traditional gender roles. Maybe I’ll write about some of these issues someday. But here’s a simpler thing for now, one that I cannot accept:

So much smoking.

I guess the banning of smoking from restaurants, bars, and public places is relatively recent around the world, but even freaking Ireland has banned smoking for all workplaces, including pubs, for 12 years. I now expect and indeed require that there is no smoking indoors.

In Japan, however, some restaurants, bars, etc. still allow smoking, sometimes with the ridiculous idea of a “smoking section”, as if the stench could be contained. Even in areas like airports or malls that have separate smoking rooms, the smell (and toxicity) leaks out.

I had a very unpleasant experience back in December (pre-move visit) when Y and I tried to have tea with a friend in a cafe. It was in a fancy hotel lobby, where you would expect a nice atmosphere, but there were people smoking right next to us, befouling the air. We couldn’t stand it and just left. Another place that always gets me is a small restaurant in a shopping centre that allows smoking. It happens to be near an entrance that I use, plus my nearest ATM. I always hold my breath when going by, but it stinks up the whole floor.

I also see people smoking on the street a fair bit, usually hanging around outside a building, or sometimes while riding a bike. To be fair, I can’t recall seeing cigarette butts around nor having smoke blown in my face,  unlike Barrack Street or Crescent Street, exemplary bad spots in my two previous cities.

Cigarettes are super cheap and can be bought from vending machines (but of course) and at konbinis (convenience stores). Smoking is illegal for people under 20 but there doesn’t seem to be much, if any, enforcement of that.

From my observations, the vast majority of smokers are older men (like most places, I guess), although I see a lot of younger men and occasionally women.

The prevalence of smoking, especially in restaurants, really surprises me about Japan. I mean, it’s a culture dominated by old guys, so that part makes sense, but in general there is a strong reluctance to impose upon others in Japanese society. Second hand smoke, though, and the lingering scent of a smoker, are pretty significant impositions.

This article from Nippon.com suggests that smoking is on the decline; I certainly hope that is true!