In the early 1980s I was working for a kaisha that provided English learning materials and lessons for Japanese speakers. I was teaching classes but I was also responsible for writing an original lesson for each weekly class. In order to do this, I’d work in their small jimusho in Ebisu alongside the department responsible for this. I hear that Ebisu is now known as a trendy area, but back then it was kind of a nothing-burger. There were five of us who worked there. Or rather they worked there full time and I came in twice a week.
They were a fun bunch of people. They all spoke some eigo having studied abroad at a time when it is less common than it is now. They were all interested in getting to know gaikokujin but were very relaxed about it. Gender roles were not especially important in that office and the men were fine with serving ocha along with the women. Our desks were arranged in a way that made conversation easy. And best of all was our osanji.
This was not a new concept to me. In fact, coincidentally, growing up, in my own home we called our snack “the three o’clock.” Note that sanji means three o’clock and in this case it takes the honofific ‘o.’ And it was serious business in that office.
Sometime between 2:30 and 3:00 PM someone, possibly our kachō, would say, “Osanji ni shimasho ka?” or “Kyō no osanji wa?” And then someone else would mention that we had cookies that a guest had brought the day before or that we had mikan someone had brought from home. But most of the time someone would head next door to the department store basement to buy some treats. Cake was a favorite of course.
When it was my turn I’d agonize over the many choices, how much I should spend, whether I was taking too long to decide, and if a variety or the same for everyone was a better idea. And then I’d make my request and get a beautifully wrapped box to take back to the jimusho.
The osanji is really a lovely idea. We’d all put down are work and talk about the news, our lives, the season, or anything else. It helped us bond, I guess you’d say. And it helped set the rhythm of our day as well.
kaisha – 会社 company, business
jimusho – 事務所 office (in a company or other place of work)
eigo – 英語 English (language)
gaikokujin – 外国人 foreigner, non-Japanese
ocha – お茶 tea, or more specifically Japanese tea
osanji – お三時 the honorable three o’clock, i.e. snack time
kachō – 課長 department head of a company
Osanji ni shimasho ka – お三時にしましょうか。 ”Shall we take a break and have a snack?”
Kyō no osanji wa? – 今日のおさん時は？”What are we having for a snack today?”
As a student abroad in Kyoto there were many firsts. We were all excited about a new panyasan that opened just to the west of our campus. So many kinds of breads! And one of our favorites was meron pan. And we had avid discussions and even arguments on why it was called melon bread. We were sure that it must be slightly flavored with melon juice. In fact, sometimes it seemed a little green-tinted. If we could have banana juice, why not melon bread?
Another faction said it was because it looked like a melon. You are probably going to go ahead and Google this, aren’t you? But in 1976 we had no internet and you would not find it in any guidebook. If we’d asked someone and they weren’t sure (they never were) they’d just prevaricate. We learned that “sō desu ne…” and “do deshō ka” were very useful expressions.
Meanwhile, the panyasan! They had descriptions, but we could not always read them. You could stay safe and stick with what you knew or you could get adventuresome… and end up with curry inside a roll for breakfast. We were great fans of the red bean rolls. Because beans are healthy, right? We had no idea how much satō was in anko back then!
The pizza pan had mayonnaise and corn kernels on it. Why, to this day, I don’t know. Probably because corn looks pretty on it. Appearances are important in Japan. But my favorite after the meron pan was the uinnā pan. It would have fluffy bread around it and catsup and perhaps a bit of parmesan cheese. To this day I can’t resist it.
Miraculously, later that year a Mr. Donuts opened on the eastern side of the campus opening up our breakfast choices considerably and giving us access to unlimited cups of amerikan kōhī. Unlimited cups were a cause for rejoicing because that was a first for us in Japan. But that’s a whole other story…
panyasan – パン屋さん bakery. It has a bit of an old-fashioned feel to it, though, since bakery is one of those words that is now used widely around Japan
meron pan – メロンパン melon bread. There’s the r and l thing at work here. And pan apparently comes from Portuguese.
sō desu ne – そうですね “Is that so?” or “hmmm” or “well, yes.” I once had a whole conversation with a little old lady where I didn’t understand a word of it and simply murmured this phrase the whole time. It took her a while to catch on, so this is a handy phrase.
dō deshō ka – どうでしょうか “Hmm, I wonder….” “That might be.” A nice ambiguous phrase to respond without actually voicing an opinion. The meaning can change based on your intonation and facial expression.
satō – 砂糖 sugar
anko – あんこ red bean paste
pan – パン bread
uinnā pan – ウインナーパン wiener or hot dog bread
amerikan kōhī – アメリカンコーヒー American coffee. In the late seventies when I worked at a restaurant if someone ordered American coffee we made it by pouring half a normal cup of coffee and half hot water into a cup. European coffee is strong, American coffee means a weaker coffee. Don’t order it.
In Japan, April is really the beginning of the year. Most importantly, it is the beginning of the new school year and also when work starts for new graduates. Cherry blossoms are in bloom in many locales and there is a feeling of both renewal and poignancy.
Or at least that is what it is supposed to be about. It’s also a season of nerves over new beginnings and even disappointment when cherry blossoms are too early, too late—or are blown from the trees by a violent storm and trod upon as everyone runs for cover.
Traditionally, you should eat some sakura mochi, which is unexpectedly salty. Yes, salty.
Less traditionally, you could walk into a conbini such as 7-11 or Fujimart and choose from a wide array of chocolate or other products celebrating the cherry blossom. I advise that you skip this, but I’m just a grouchy granny stuck in post-war Showa, which I think was a glorious time in Japan.
Conbini – コンビニ convenience store such as 7-11
Mochi – おもち sorry, but what planet are you living on if you don’t know what this is?! Google it. (But if you can read Japanese, notice I put the honorific “o” on it when I typed the Japanese because I couldn’t help myself.)
Sakura – さくら cherry blossom or tree
Sakura mochi – さくらもち a Japanese sweet which is pink, contains red bean paste wrapped in sweet glutinous rice and then further wrapped in a salted sakura leaf.
Showa – 昭和 the period of Japan that waxes oh so nostalgic for those of us who lived it. It represents the reign of Emperor Hirohito and goes from 1926-1989. Of course most people are nostalgic about the last forty years of it, though those war years are not to be forgotten.