Encountering strangers on trips back to Europe, I find myself falling into a familiar conversational call-and-response:
Where do you live?
Really? But isn’t Japan very expensive?
No, these days a city like Osaka has living costs comparable with Berlin or Glasgow.
But with better food, right?
Yes, generally with better food. But there are some European foods I really miss in Japan. Things you can get here in Europe that I can’t in Osaka.
Well, such as bread so heavy and nutritious that you could survive for several days on a single loaf.
Bread in Japan is often treated as a dessert rather than a main course, a trifle rather than a staple. Blame the nation’s lack of rolling wheat fields, and the preservative properties of sugar; a Japanese bakery will typically feature an array of light, sticky pastries. Even the loaves that may look and feel like chunky German bread, turn out to be filled with sweet bean paste. And sure, there may be indie-organic artisanal bakers in Tokyo making decent German-style bread, but they don’t usually make it down to Osaka.
The standard white pan offered as bread in Japanese convenience stores is an abomination — a travesty in five or six slices, a sort of edible amnesia. For my daily bread I’m forced to fall back on the fairly acceptable sliced sesame seed loaf offered by Lawson, found on a shelf alongside plastic-wrapped baguettes.
But what to put on it? Cheese is another area where Japan seems to have forgotten — or perhaps filtered out — the entire point of a food group. European cheese is always in the process of going old, hard or moldy, but — ideally — hasn’t yet flipped over into disgusting. The slow decay hits a sweet spot, and becomes personality. But Japan sees cheese as hamburger sauce in solid form. All taste eludes bland slices sealed in foil.
Other dairy products fare better in Japan: I am utterly addicted to Yasuda’s rich, creamy Drink Yogurt, for instance, and I enjoy squeezing spreadable Meiji butter from its yellow tube. These are cases in which Japan has leapfrogged Europe, taking foreign ideas and actually improving them.
As an expat European, I swear by black tea during the day and white beer in the evening. Both are in short supply in Osaka; upmarket import supermarket Seijo Ishii recently stopped stocking my favorite PG Tips tea, and — compared with South Korea, where every convenience store seems to be stocked with a dizzying array of imported German and Belgian weissbier — Osaka is not a strong contender in the white beer game.
Sure, Hoegaarden is on tap widely, and Osaka has an excellent craft brewery in Minoh Beer (head to their Beer Belly pub to sample the Minoh Weizen). But this beer — like the excellent Coedo Shiro brewed in Saitama — is poorly distributed. On the mass market you’ll find acceptable wheat beer happoshu (low-malt, beer-like liquor) notable mainly for its low price.
But it is neither fair nor reasonable to demand decent European food in Japan. Who wants or needs a world in which everything is available everywhere? It might sound pretentious, in a column about cheap food, to speak of terroir — the idea that the personality of food is intrinsically tied up with the place where it’s grown. But even in a globalized age of refrigerated containers and air freight, sometimes frailty and cost make the shipping of foodstuffs pointless.
The local is best enjoyed locally. The thing to do, if you want European food in Japan, is very simple: Export yourself to Europe.