When I first went to Kyoto there were very few Western restaurants. There was a makudonarudo and a Shakey’s Pizza Restaurant downtown. This was in 1976. There were other restaurants that appeared to be Western such as the Lipton Restaurant. We presumed it was British. We also found that the fancy department stores sold exotic chocolates imported from Europe and the United States. Imagine seeing a forlorn Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar next to swanky Swiss and Belgian chocolate with a similar price tag!
I was not a kankōkyaku to Kyoto and was now here for the duration. After graduating from college with a major in Japanese Language and Literature I was back for a second shot at Japan.
There were not that many gaikokujin living in Kyoto at that time. After living there for six months, I felt like I’d probably seen them all and talked to the ones I wanted to meet. Kyoto had plenty of kankōkyaku, but they weren’t any of my concern. There was a certain level of snobbery among the foreigners who lived there, and your status was directly linked to your time in Japan, and level of language ability. If you were really cool, you strode around wearing a yukata like Clifton Karhu, a Minnesota artist who later became quite famous. Or you managed a beat coffee house like the poet Cid Corman. If you were a woman, maybe you dared to become a bar hostess instead of teaching English conversation like 95% of all foreigners. Back then almost all Western foreigners taught English, even if they came from Germany or France.
We had no virtually no connection at all with Asian foreigners. When we did meet one, we were excited. They seemed exotic and could “pass” unlike us.
The one thing that you did not do if you were living in Kyoto was to eat at McDonalds. It came up often in conversation, and you wanted to be that person who had not gone even once. Or if you did go, you wanted it to be only in an emergency, or once or twice a year. (It is hard to imagine what the emergency would be since it was located downtown within stone’s throw of any number of genuine Japanese eateries.) You wanted to be the person who didn’t know that to order French fries you had to ask for poteto.” And you wouldn’t know that kechappu wasn’t available unless you specifically asked for it, and then they’d squirt some into a tiny paper cup for you in the back.
I could be very smug here. I’d worked at a McDonalds back in the United States when I was in high school. I’d had my fill and didn’t feel a strong need to take a trip back down that particular memory lane. Though my first encounter with washoku had not gone smoothly, I now knew what I liked to eat and where to get it.
Here is how I rated the cultural adjustment of an American in Japan based on his relationship with McDonalds. Let’s call him Edgar.
- Passes by makudonarudo with slight longing in eyes, but nobly resists.
- Brags about how much he likes Japanese food and eats sushi every night for dinner.
- Starts wearing a yukata to work, and eats nattō. Disdains pasta.
- Refuses to talk to any other foreigners. Insists on speaking Japanese with them when forced to converse.
- Realizes MinMin, and Osho are really Chinese food joints (cheap greasy spoons with gyoza and fried rice).
- His Japanese gets good enough to read menus instead of relying on plastic food models in front of restaurants.
- Craves French fries and hates himself for it.
- Craves French fries and starts counting how long it has been since he’s had a hamburger.
- Realizes he’s being ridiculous and that where one eats is no genuine reflection of…. Well, anything.
- Takes off his yukata, walks into McDonalds and unselfconsciously orders a burger and fries. And a banana milkshake. (After all, it IS Japan.)
Omedetō gozaimasu, Edgar! You have now officially adjusted to Japan and can drop all the pretension. Sad to say, this process usually took a long time for Americans, I’m afraid. We have such ridiculous pretensions….
- makudonarudo マクドナルド McDonalds. It’s a mouthful to say. I think you can get away with just saying makku if you are in context.
- kankōkyaku – 観光客 tourists
- gaikokujin – 外国人 foreigners. This is the polite form. In Japan, the shorter the phrase gets the ore casual or even rude it is. Because of that, it isn’t exactly polite when this gets shortened to gaijin. But it very often is shortened to the dismay of some.
- yukata – 浴衣 summer kimono. These are generally made of cotton. In my mind, if it is not cotton, it is not genuine, i.e. please do not wear any made from rayon or polyester. Cringeworthy!
- poteto – ポテト You might think this is how you say potato, but you’d be wrong. This means French Fries. Potato has its own word.
- kechappu – ケチャップ catsup
- nattō – 納豆 fermented soybeans. I have never even wanted to try nattō and there is a fierce battle between the nattō camp and the not nattō camp. I’m sure they are quite healthy, but yuck. Generally, people in Kyoto do not eat it. I rest my case.
- MinMin – 珉珉 a cheap Chinese joint. A real greasy spoon that women used to not want to enter. But it was the saving grace for starving students.
- Osho – 王将 Another cheap Chinese joint that is famous for gyōza. If you’re young and your stomach can stand it, it’s great food!
- gyōza – 餃子 Fried dumplings.You should know this since they are pretty mainstream outside Japan now.
- Omedetō gozaimasu – おめでとうございます Congratulations!