By Sandy Mui
Published: February 21st, 2018
When I decided to study abroad in Japan for the winter intersession, I thought sushi would be the first food that I try there.
I was wrong. In fact, I didn’t eat sushi in Japan. Not even once.
I could tell you what I did eat, though. A lot of chicken, specifically Karaage (Japanese fried chicken). Back in New York City, the most common meat I munch on is chicken. And, why should that come as a surprise? New Yorkers know chicken over rice is the real deal, both literally and figuratively, especially if you’re on a budget.
In Japan, I tried to complement my meals with chicken as much as possible, and was upset whenever I realized a restaurant serving udon or soba didn’t have any dishes served with chicken. The thing is, when you’re in a foreign country and only know two words of the language, you can’t exactly be too picky when it comes to food; “arigato” [thank you] and “sumimasen” [sorry] only got me so far in the country. It’s almost like you’re a newborn learning a word for the first time.
You’ll realize this at the very beginning of your trip, the moment you first step foot into a restaurant or store. For me, that moment occurred in Odoya, a supermarket in Kyonan (a small town located right next to Tokyo Bay).
I was in Kyonan for the first six days of the trip as part of Queens College’s “Culture Program.” Despite the ever-growing tourist industry of Kyonan, there still isn’t much to do there, aside from going on scenic Instagram-worthy photoshoots. Sure, I’ll always have Tokyo Bay’s cascading waves and the misty, distant view of Mount Fuji ingrained into my memory from Kyonan, but Kyonan was also the only town/city I visited on this trip that didn’t have any postcards for sale.
There were a couple of restaurants eastwards from our hotel in Kyonan, but most of us went in the opposite direction to Odoya for food (or even just to explore). Odoya carried all sorts of peculiar things you’d never expect to find in a supermarket: countless racks of manga (Japanese comic books) and even clothing, though the one thing it didn’t have that was absolutely necessary for my survival was a cell phone adapter.
The second day in Kyonan was the first time I ventured out to Odoya. Upon entering, I was greeted by clothing on the left, and manga on the right. Dumbfounded, I simply stood there with a few other students, as still as a statue, and wondered why our professor would suggest such a place for food.
Oh wait, we are in a supermarket after all. A few minutes later, a student called out from the back of the supermarket after spotting food. At last, something to ease the continual rumbling of my stomach.
I must have been just as stunned as Tom whenever he’s busted by Jerry when I was at the front of Odoya and saw the food. You know the saying, “It’s always good to have options?” Well, there were certainly options, but not exactly understandable ones, given the fact that everything was written in Japanese.
Indecisively, I grabbed a whole bunch of things I could recognize with an eye test: various onigiri (triangular rice balls) and a plastic tray filled with karaage. That was my blunder.
Attempting to balance the food in my arms as if I were Philippe Petit on the tightrope in 1974, I still hadn’t decided what my lunch would be when the moment of truth came out: I’m no Philippe Petit. The tray of karaage slipped from my grasp, and out came the pieces of chicken, now littered on the floor.
I stood there, frozen, unsure of how to even react. A man, clad in a white chef’s hat and white apron, came out from the back of the supermarket and waved his arms at me in a dismissive, criss-cross manner. I could only stop and stare, noticing that he was smiling. Another worker accompanied him to clean up the forsaken chicken as the chef directed me to new sets of karaage that had just come out from the kitchen.
Years from now, when I try to recall my study abroad trip, my greatest remembrances won’t be the three Kokeshi dolls, nor the 105 postcards I bought. It’ll be me standing in Odoya next to little pieces of Karaage on the ground while a man smiles at me for my utter foolishness.