Toast – Part 2

If you want to know the deep dark mysteries of Japanese bunka and all of the intrinsic intrigue of the Orient, just look to a piece of tōsuto.

No… I’m just joking. But I do have another toast story to tell.

When I worked as a honyakusha in Tokyo I had a myriad of small jobs to do, some more interesting than others and some more fukuzatsu than others. There were the instructions for building a bridge in Malaysia. That was a terribly mismatched ask. What do I know or understand about engineering? I had no business working on that translation. Then there was the hon I translated called Dead Speak of War which was a book of wartime photos of… you guessed it… dead bodies. I was to translate the captions. They were pretty simple captions like “Dead man under a tree” etc. But they said they weren’t going to give me the photos… just the text. This was a huge problem because the Japanese language has no plurals. I needed the shashin so I could know if it was one body or more. It may have been “Dead men under a tree” for all I knew. Atama ga itai!

In comparison, the job for Nikko Hotels seemed relatively kantan. I was to translate memos between the head office in Tokyo and the newly opened branch of Nikko Hotel in New York City that was owned by Japan Airlines. Memos… how hard could that be? And indeed it was one of my easier jobs until…. tōsuto.

A translator is supposed to be invisible. The translator’s job is to faithfully transmit the contents of a document just as it is. Now, a literary translator has some latitude. They can even use footnotes… judiciously of course. But a business translator has no business doing any interpreting of the content. The facts, ma’am just the facts. And this is how I got caught squirming in the Great Toast Debate.

It started with a complaint. Japanese kankōkyaku in New York City said that the toast at the hotel was burnt. Consistently, burnt. Headquarters sent a memo ordering the kitchen staff in New York to stop burning the toast. New York replied that the toast most certainly wasn’t burnt. But monku kept coming from the Japanese tourists. The toast was burnt on BOTH sides, they claimed. Headquarters sent yet another request to the kitchen staff. New York was annoyed. And, adamant that the toast was properly toasted. (And delicious.) They were not receiving a single complaint from any American patrons of the hotel. They rested their case.

Tokyo was not happy. They demanded to know exactly how the toast was being toasted and why they were toasting it so it was crisp on BOTH sides. New York was baffled. Because… because…. IT IS TOAST!

The thing is, I could have solved this in a second. The New York staff had no idea what Japanese expectations of toast were. And Tokyo had no idea what American expectations of toast were. (And there was no Google around back then.) But I was a young translator and did not think I had any options. I tentatively wrote a note of explanation and included it with one of my translations. There was no response.

So, I’m finding it amusing that Americans are now discovering Japanese “milk bread” and the joys of Japanese toast.


I will now spare you a Toast – Part 3 about how my American (a New Yorker) mother learned that she could order toast in Japan easily by putting an “o” at the end of the word—and then proceeded to put “o’s” at the end of every English word any time she felt a need to communicate while in Japan….

  • bunka – 文化 culture
  • tōsuto – トースト toast
  • honyakusha – 翻訳者 translator
  • fukuzatsu – 複雑 complicated, complex
  • hon – 本 book
  • shashin – 写真 photograph
  • Atama ga itai! – 頭が痛い Literally, “my head hurts.” Also used for “What a headache!”
  • kantan – 簡単 simple
  • kankōkyaku – 観光客 tourist
  • monku – 文句 complaint

Toast – Part 1

Why is it that there are some memories that stay so vividly in our mind, though there is nothing particularly notable about them?

I wonder if it is the combination of elements that are forming the memory? I think of a day in the autumn in Kyoto, when I walked down from my apāto in Midorogaike and into a kissaten that was one of the few nearby at that time. I didn’t go there very often, perhaps because it was not the cheapest place I knew. But they had the most oishii shinamon tōsuto on that very thick Japanese pan, crisped to perfection and then with butter and an even layer of cinnamon sugar.

When I think of the perfect cinnamon toast this place comes to mind… and I regularly ordered cinnamon toast at coffee shops all over Kyoto.

Grumpy Grandma Note Follows

(Unfortunately--in my opinion--simple toast is hard to find now! There seems to be a tendency to dollop it with whipped cream, anko, sequins (okay, just kidding) etc. I had to go into an old-style coffee shop--i.e. not a cafe--to find what I wanted during my trip back in 2016.)

As I slowly savored my toast in that Midorogaike coffee shop and gazed aimlessly out the mado and around the room, the BGM changed to Barbra Streisand singing, “Woman in Love” and it created the perfect moment for me.

But why? I do not remember if I was in love with anyone that day or even if I had a crush. But the moment is inscribed in my memory forever it seems. 

  • apāto -アパート apartment
  • kissaten – 喫茶店 coffee shop, but now refers to an old style coffee shop as opposed to a cafe. Us old folks like this style much better. Hipsters do not. Yet.
  • oishii – 美味しい delicious, adj.
  • shinamon tōsuto – シナモントースト cinnamon toast
  • pan – パン bread or rolls
  • mado – 窓 window

University Potatoes

I’m so grateful that Japanese satsumaimo have appeared on the scene in America. My Whole Foods has them and my local Japanese farmer has them as well. If you haven’t seen them, the most notable feature is that the inside is a pale kiiro rather than orange. If you scratch the surface of a satsumaimo you can see the color inside and assure yourself that you have the Japanese variety.

Satsumaimo sings in the season. Literally. One of the more nostalgic sounds of autumn and upcoming fuyu comes from the trucks roaming city and suburb streets selling roasted satsumaimo. In the winter you buy it as you walk home from the train station, firstly to warm your te as you walk and secondly to eat. Roasted satsumaimo are the best.

And then there are the daigaku imo that you see being sold in tiny shops that may or may not sell other sweets. I’ve never liked them, but I know they are pieces of sweet potato deep fried and dipped in sugar or honey. Why daigaku, which means university?

It turns out that they were first sold near universities in Tokyo or areas where university students lived. Students back then were notoriously poor and couldn’t afford much. So this was an affordable and filling snack for them. These days students seem much wealthier, but everyone still likes satsumaimo.

One of my children’s favorite books featured satsumaimo and a farting contest. Because if you eat a lot of them, you get pretty gassy. In this book the children eat as many as they can and then use their onara to rise into the sky.

Last week I was in Cambridge and had access to an Asian pastry shop. And yes, the only thing I wanted was sweet potato pastry. Note the black sesame seeds that you also see on the daigaku imo. They just seem to go together with satsumaimo. Tengoku!

  • satsumaimo – サツマイモ sweet potato. Literally a potato from Satsuma
  • kiiro – 黄色 yellow
  • fuyu – 冬 winter
  • te – 手 hand or hands
  • daigaku imo – 大学芋 sweet potatoes deep fried with either sugar or honey. A favorite treat of students
  • onara – おなら fart
  • Tengoku – 天国 Heaven. Used in this case much as “heavenly!”


It’s that time of year when the nature and more lyrical writers amongst us come out in droves to wax poetically about the autumn season with all of its marvelous changes.


For me, it is about the kinmokusei. If I tell you what it is in English, it isn’t going to do much to explain it if you haven’t been to Japan and seen and smelled these blossoms yourself. I have a sensitive hana and I remember walking one autumn day and smelling the most wonderfully fragrant scent. I soon saw it was coming from the tiny yellow-orange blossoms on a tree I’d never paid particular notice to before.

I asked a friend. He rolled his me and said it was a curse to all men because when they smelled it they would be unable to sleep at night. I will just leave that for your sōzō to interpret. It is a wonderfully perfume-y scent, but very light and, to me, not overwhelming.

A popular brand

In fact, I liked it so much that I even liked it in the toire. It turns out that kinmokusei was a popular scent for air fresheners which were de rigueur for any toilet in a home and many public places as well. When I returned to America, I packed a few of them to take back with me so that I could remember and cherish the kinmokusei.

Dear reader, of course I eventually ran out of these air fresheners. And it is a sweet reminder of the thoughtfulness of my Japanese family that they once sent me a few more of them (probably thinking what a weirdo I was). Sadly, I was unable to find these air fresheners when I was back in Kyoto in 2016. There are trendier choices now. But I bet I am not the only old lady that misses them. Fingers crossed that the current Showa Boom brings back the kinmokusei air fresheners!

  • kinmokusei – 金木犀 osmanthus flower
  • hana – 鼻 nose. With a different character, it also means flower. Ponder that.
  • me – 目 eye or eyes
  • sōzō – 想像 imagination
  • toire – トイレ this is a general word for toilet. Men might use benjo 便所 (literally ‘convenient place’) instead and women could delicately use otearai お手洗い (literally ‘to wash hands’).