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November 25, 2016

Workie Mike's Japanese Diaries

By Stuart Turner

sushisushi's new work experience lad knows nothing about making tea in Yorkshire. What he does know though is how to look like a complete plank, while dining in Japan on a gap year. In the first of a series of diary entries from Japan, Mike writes of an embarressing incident twirling nato on chopsticks

The first time I arrived there, I didn’t know much about Japan. I’d done a few evening
courses in Japanese and cockily assumed the few basic, mostly pen-related, phrases I’d
picked up (“This is a pen”, “That is a pen”, “Is this a pen?” etc.) would get me by.

I’d only been at my voluntary placement a day or two when I got my first opportunity to
experience a Japanese bar (Izakaya). With the jet lag still looming and having understood
nothing anyone had said to me since I arrived, I was more than ready for a drink and, at
20, was just legally old enough to have one. Plus, it would be a good way to try to get
to know my fellow (Japanese) volunteers in a more relaxed setting. I did contemplate
taking a pen along as a prop just to ensure I’d be able to make some kind of small talk
in Japanese, but decided against it when I remembered my aim wasn’t to make everyone
think I was a massive dick.

It actually wasn’t as awkward as I’d expected, fuelled by Dutch courage everyone was
happy to practice whatever English they knew on me, and a former volunteer from
England, back for a visit, translated everything else to keep me involved.

With the mood relaxed, the time had come for my initiation test. The waiter was
summoned and left with an order for natto.

Natto (or, somewhat less appetisingly, ‘fermented soybeans’) is, in terms of dividing
opinion at least, the Japanese equivalent of marmite.

It arrived. I’m not easily put off by the way food looks, but I did immediately notice that
the smell bore a strikingly close resemblance to stinky feet. Closer, in fact, than anything
intended for human consumption ought to.

Due to the gloopy consistency of natto, I was instructed on the correct way to eat it. Once
I’d picked some up I was to twirl my chopsticks around in a circular motion to catch any
stringy bits that clung on.

So under the expectant gaze of everyone at the table I scooped some up and began to
twirl. Perhaps it was the pressure, or it may have just been my overeagerness to impress,
but I massively miscalculated the amount of effort I would need to exert in spinning my
chopsticks around. Anyway, long story short, and how I managed it I’m still not quite
sure, but I ended up with natto on my head.

If you remember Wacky Wallwalkers, the sticky toys you’d throw at a window and
watch them walk/flop their way downwards, leaving a smudged trail of crap behind them,
then you’ll be able to picture exactly the way the natto made its way down my face.

I may have salvaged some dignity in guiding it into my mouth. If I was really lucky, I
thought, some people might even assume it was a party trick and actually be impressed.

Now, before my trip I read up fairly extensively on the do’s and don’ts of Japanese
etiquette, especially table manners, specifically so I wouldn’t commit some grievous
faux pas or humiliate myself unnecessarily. NOWHERE did I read that the accidental
throwing of food onto one’s head would be greeted with looks of semi-disgust and an
awkward silence. So I was genuinely surprised when I looked up to see that the only
other person laughing was the other English guy.

I don’t think anyone was really that offended, but it probably didn’t make the best
impression. I only hope through telling this story that I might save future travellers to
Japan the social discomfort that I had to endure.

In conclusions: In Japan, food on head = bad. As opposed to England, where, err… well,
there’s probably a moral in there somewhere, anyway.

Oh, and as for natto, despite everything, I really like it.


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