Mrs. Kramer's Class Has Some Questions

(note: Sure it's been nearly 8 months since I returned from Japan, but this piece just seemed to trickle together very slowly.)

Being that my mother has been an elementary school teacher for over thirty years, my teaching in elementary and middle schools in Japan was ripe for experimental exchange between our students. My mother curated a set of questions from her students for me to ask mine. Some of these questions I was simply able to answer myself, while others are the result of my polling various different students and getting a feel for the best answer. My students really enjoyed knowing they were getting questions from Miami. After I returned to Miami from Fuji City, I came into my mother's class room and spent time with her students, presenting them with the answers from the Japanese students as well as fielding any new questions they may have had. It was great experience for both the students and myself.

1.  "How do you say Good morning in Japanese?" Ohayou gozaimasu, pronounced phonetically as “Ohio go-zai-mas” 2.  "What are the most important things that Mr. Kramer has taught you?" My students felt that "Hello" and "Thank you" were the most helpful. 3.  "What important celebrations are part of Japanese culture?  How do you celebrate them?" The most important holiday on the Japanese calendar is Shogatsu, which are New Years Day celebrations. New Years Eve is not a big party day as it is in much of the western world. Not long after the clock strikes midnight, the people of Japan go to sleep so they can rise early to go to the Shinto temple the next morning. Some of the more clever students responded with “My birthday!” 4.  How much time do you spend on homework after school, and on weekends? Japanese school usually runs from 7:30 AM until 3:20 PM, but more often than not, students come to school early and leave late to participate in club activities (sports, academics, competition practices) often not leaving until 6:00 PM. After that, most all students attend juku, which are cram schools tutoring students in various subjects such as English and math. Juku often goes on until 9:00 PM or even later. Some students will usually study or do homework upon returning home. So the answer to the question is “quite a lot.” 5.  How much do you read after school? Reading is hugely popular in Japan, in my junior high school there were always lines out the library door during recess of kids returning and checking out stacks of books, often 10 or 20 high. Many students will read recreationally between classes, comic books being especially popular, but novels of a wide range of genres are also read. So the answer to the question is, again, “quite a lot.” 6.  What do you like the most about your country? “Peace!” and “sushi” were  easily the most popular answers. 7.  Do you know enough English that you can flaunt it to other people? As an indication of the answer, only a select few of my students would even understand what this question means. 8.  If you could go anywhere in Japan, where would you go?  and why? Hokkaido and Okinawa are by far the most common answers to this question. These locations are much like Alaska and Hawaii of the US. Hokkaido is the northern most island of Japan, with abundant snowfall and distinct cuisine. The Sapporo Winter Festival is by far the most popular festival in Japan. Okinawa is the southernmost island group in Japan, actually being closer to Taiwan than to main land Japan, and is seen as a tropical paradise. 9.  How fast does the bullet train go? 240-300 km/h (149-186 mph)! 10.  What kind of sports do you like to play? Basketball and soccer are by far the most popular sports in my junior high school, with baseball close behind in third. We actually had the number one boys basketball team, number one softball team and number one boys soccer team in Fuji City for the 2010/2011 school year. 11.  What is the favorite food in Japan? As far as Japanese food goes, sushi and various types of fish were popular answers, but the winner, by far, was ramen noodles. Ramen is basically Japanese fast food; cheap, delicious and leagues better than the Cup Noodle we associate ramen with in the States. Outside of Japanese food, McDonald’s is also a big favorite. Some of my students have such an affinity for the Golden Arches that they thought it to be Japanese and called me a liar when I told them it was from America. 12.  What is the most popular sport that people like? Baseball is by far the most popular sport in Japan. Some of my students are under delusions that soccer or basketball are number one, but that’s usually because they play those sports for the school team. Soccer has definitely been gaining popularity in the nation and grows larger with each passing FIFA World Cup. 13.  What is the best part of living in Fuji City? I exclusively received two answers, “views of Mt. Fuji” and “my house.” A testament of the exciting metropolis that Fuji City is. 14.  Does Mr. Kramer speak Japanese very well? “Oh yes, very well, very good.” They are liars.

One last hurrah, 22 More Subtle Differences Between Japan and the USA

While I've been back in the US for nearly two months now, when I was still in Japan I kept a running list of differences that I would add to whenever I came across a new one. These are the last set that never made it out before I left the country, mostly small observations, but hopefully you can still find them interesting.

  1. Since an eye test using the Latin alphabet wouldn't make much sense to use in Japan, one developed by Russians in 1923 using circles is used instead, seen on the right side of this picture.
  2. For the most part streets don't have names or even numbers, but it is instead the blocks are numbered. Watch this video for a great explanation:
  3. Newspapers are far from in trouble, some even publish twice a day. Japan is second only to Iceland in newspapers published per 1,000 people (634.5 newspapers, source).
  4. Japan has 12 cities with a population of over 1,000,000 people, the U.S. has 9.
  5. Japan is approximately 4% the size of the U.S..
  6. You know how Philly has Cheesesteaks, New York and Chicago have Pizza and Louisiana has Gumbo and Jambalaya and not many other regions have their own signature dish? Well virtually all cities in Japan have their own signature dish. Part of this has to do with the tradition in Japanese culture to bring back gifts for friends and family when you go on a trip and those gifts are typically food. As a result, most train stations and gift shops have a huge selection of individually wrapped snacks for your loved ones. Fuji City's signature food is boiled peanuts, I have no idea why.
  7. Light switches are typically horizontal.
  8. Most houses have car ports instead of garages
  9. Cream Soda is not a golden drink in Japan, instead it is actually a melon soda float with vanilla ice cream, and even though melon soda tastes nothing like cream soda (though equally as delicious) the added ice cream makes it taste exactly has the golden variety in the States.
  10. Valentine's day gift giving is reserved solely for females to give the men in their lives as where a separate holiday, White Day on March 14th, is when men give chocolates and what not to their lady friends.
  11. Power outlets have 2 prongs instead of 3.
  12. The entire country of Japan is on a single time zone, even though eastern and western extremes of the country see the sunrise an hour apart.
  13. Trash is burned as there is no where to put it on such a small island.
  14. Very few kids, if any, bring lunch to school.
  15. Handicap access is not mandatory and quite scant.
  16. When you move into a new apartment you have to provide what is called "key money." It's usually one to three months rent you have to pay up front. However, unlike a security deposit, you will never see this money ever again. I personally believe this to be bullshit.
  17. Houses are typically pre-fabricated and modular.
  18. People tend to own small dogs. Popular breeds being Dachshund, Chihuahua and anything else tiny and super cutesy.
  19. Toothpicks are one sided.
  20. Convenience Stores have a "warm drink" section that keeps coffees and hot teas at a great temperature for the winter.
  21. Almost all cars have a GPS unit.
  22. Soda and beer cans have a little dimple under the top of the tab, making opening cans extremely easy.

Goodbye Japan

My year in Japan is over. March 29th, 2010 I arrived in Japan to teach English in Fuji City with little to no expectations or even any real plans other than doing something interesting and different with my life. Exactly one year later, March 29th, 2011, I returned to the US.

My birthday is March 30th, so I spent the entirety of the age 23 living in Japan. 23 was an age for a lot of firsts. It was the first time that I lived by myself, in a foreign country and where I didn't know anyone. My first time with a fulltime job and the longest time I've continuously held a job. I went surfing. I went to underground nightclubs. There was a newspaper article written about me. I experienced the largest earthquake in Japan's recorded history, whose effects are still being felt almost a month later.

I didn't love Fuji City, but I loved my job. Taking the job as an English teacher was always just a way for me to travel and work abroad, there was never a specific reason for coming to Japan, and when people asked me why I was going I'd say "Why not?" But within a few months of starting work I was honestly surprised at  how much I enjoyed teaching. What's most surprising about this is that I always used to say that I'd never become a teacher, the phrase "over my dead body" came up a lot in regards to the matter, due to all the second-hand experience I received from my mother, an elementary school teacher for the past 30 years.

My taking to the job has everything to do with Japanese culture and the school I taught at. My students were amazing, as were the teachers that I worked with. Japanese students are easier to handle in virtually every way and the relationships that teachers have with students is much closer to that of parents and children, or even friends. Students are left on their own in the classroom multiple times a day, they take initiative to do their work, they rarely ever fight (Through the entire year, I only witnessed a single fight, in middle school. Fights were a weekly, or even daily, occurrence at my own middle school in Miami.) and students would always help out if a peer didn't quite grasp a concept in class.

Looking back, I'm amazed at how much I've done in Japan over the course of the one year. I've seen more of Japan than most Japanese get to in their entire lives. I made more new friends in my single year in Japan than my four years at university, and people from all of the world, not just Japan. I've learned so much of the Japanese language simply from speaking to friends and students (my Japanese is by no means good, I'd say my speaking level is equivalent to that of a 2 year old, at best).

There's no doubt that I'll return to Japan one day, hopefully getting a chance to see all of my friends again and maybe even some students. I'm going to miss a lot of things about Japan: my schools, my friends, Japanese food, the ease of train travel and so much more. But I look forward to what's to come in the US: driving, affordable fruits, my family and my friends.

My first full day back in the United States was my 24th birthday. What I'll be doing from 24 on I'm not really sure. But I'll be sure to keep you updated along the way.

Sorry for the delay in posting a bit of a wrap of, as you can imagine things have been a bit crazy since the earthquake, then I went to China, then I moved back to US. My return had nothing to do with the recent Tohoku earthquake, or the current nuclear disaster in Fukushima, the plan was always to just do one year and I've bought my ticket back to the U.S. in December.

This isn't the end of, I'll be sure to keep posting any traveling I do or any interesting going ons in my life. Until then...

I'm okay.

There was an earthquake here in Japan today, I'm perfectly okay. It wasn't really that bad here in Fuji. Here's an e-mail I sent to my parents explaining what happened and how it was in Fuji.

I'm sure you've heard, there was an earthquake here in Japan. I'm perfectly ok. It was only a 4 here in Fuji. It was actually my very last day teaching at elementary school, I just finished my very last class and was walking around the halls when an announcement came on the P.A. and teachers started ushering kids into the classrooms to take cover under their desks, not saying anything to me. Then the building started swaying. Didn't really feel like more than the sway of a slow dance, only a little faster, not violent at all. For a moment, part of me even thought that it was some ridiculously high tech drill halfway through. The first tremor lasted about 2 minutes. After it stopped, we evacuated to the P.E. field where heads were counted and announcements were made by the vice principle, then announcements from city hall via the city-wide loudspeaker system. We went back inside so kids could gather their things and go home since school had officially been over for 10 minutes. As we did that another tremor hit, a little weaker and only lasting about 30 seconds. We regrouped again outside, some parents were showing up to pick their kids up, and shortly thereafter the teachers led all the kids back home.

Quite the eventful last day, huh?

Sure, why not?

I love snowboarding. The family and I used to go skiing most every spring break, from elementary school through early high school, usually in the Rocky Mountains. I made the transition from skis to snowboard around the time I became a teen and really enjoyed it as a snowbound extension of all the skateboarding I did. It's been at least 6 years (possibly 8 ) since the last family ski outing and as time has gone on I've only wanted to go again more and more.

Moving to Japan, home to two winter Olympics, I had thoughts of possibly strapping back onto a board before even leaving Miami. However, not having a car tends to put a hamper on planning road trips, but I have been sidetracked by a lot of amazing Japanese experiences, so I haven't paid it much mind.

Before I'm asked, it does not snow in Fuji City.

An opportunity arose when I saw my buddy Atsutoshi make the following post on Facebook

Sure, why not? We settled on going to the village of Hakuba within Nagano prefecture and off we went Friday evening after we had both finished work.

The one caveat would be that we didn't have a place to stay and would be sleeping in the car. Not something I'm against at all, but I was really surprised to hear that it's an extremely common practice in Japan. Since people don't get a lot of time off, and you are probably never further than an 8 hour drive away from a resort, people will drive to the mountain after work on Friday, sleep in their car that night, ski first thing Saturday morning and drive back that evening. Sure enough, when we got to the parking lot at a little past midnight, there were at least a dozen other people sleeping in their cars.

Known as being the location of the Alpine, Ski Jump and Crosscountry events during the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, Hakuba dense with places to ride down mountains with great snow. I had originally thought that the ski resorts in Japan, being a relatively small country whose mountains aren't particularly high, wouldn't be all the great. Naturally, I was wrong.

Hakuba can certainly stand up next to most resorts around the world. It was a great place for me to ease myself back into the sport after so long away from it, a lot of varied terrain ranging from easy to moderately difficult and the weather was amazingly clear. On one chair lift ride we spoke to a Finnish man who was just wrapping up a 6 week ski trip in Hakuba because it's his favorite place to ski in the world and also doesn't really get too crowded.

It turned out that Atsutoshi had a friend from New Zealand that lives in the area and invited us to a "Hip-Hop Party" at some bar. It would mean sleeping in the car another night, but sure, why not?

The featured entertainment of the night would be live rap music, but before and during that there was also an ongoing mural/graffiti demonstration.

We met a lot of really nice people, most of which were from Tokyo, and had a really great time. Sleeping in the car this night wasn't too difficult, we were extremely exhausted from a long day of snowboarding and all the beer we drank didn't hurt either.

On our drive back to Fuji from Nagano we passed an amusement park...of course we did.

Fujikyu Highland, home to three record setting roller coasters: Fujiyama, formerly the world's tallest coaster; Dodonpa, the fastest accelerating roller coaster in the world, doing 0-172kph/107mph in 1.8 seconds; and Eejanaika, the world's second "4th dimension" coaster ("whereby riders are rotated independently of the orientation of the track").

I'm here to say that Eejanaika is by far the best roller coaster I have ever been on, was it ever terrifyingly amazing. It is high, extremely high, and words cannot describe it. Words can describe Dodonpa, extremely fast.

This really made for a great end to a great weekend. But I think seeing this in the parking lot on our way out made it even better:

Nothing compares to you Sankaku.

For a quick digest version of the weekend, watch this video:

Big America Burgers

This is far from news, but something I figured worth sharing. For the second year, McDonald's is selling a series of burgers under the "Big America" title for the first three months of the year. Each burger named and styled after an American location (typically states) and only sold during a certain month.

You'll notice February's burger is none other than the Miami Burger, my own hometown. Now, I haven't eaten any of these burgers, but from the looks of it that looks like no burger or sandwich I'd ever associate with Miami. Nacho/tortilla chips? Some sort of salsa or Sloppy Joe sauce on top of the beef patty? This sounds much more like a TexMex burger.

A real Miami Burger might be something that includes arepaspastelitos, empenadas, skirt steak, adobo seasoning, or black beans. But that sounds like an awful hamburger.

A number of times my students have asked me about the Miami burger and if I've had it. It causes a bit of a controversy every time I tell them that it's a complete lie.

You can take a look at last years Big America burgers here.

Horse Back Riding On Mountaintops

Continued from "If It's Koya, It Has to be Good"

From Koya, Ryan and I continued our road trip south, towards the southernmost tip of the Japanese mainland.

Ryan with our trusty tiny car.

We made some stops along the way whenever something caught our eye: bridges, nice views, observations platforms. On that observation platform we found this piece of wonderful exercise equipment, with no explanation:

Ryan on a horse back riding exercise machine.

Ocean side cliffs at Shirahama.

We camped a the night in Shirahama, a beach town frequented by people from Osaka (Japan's second largest city) during the summer. Being made up of a islands formed by volcanoes, Japan's beaches are typically black sand. Shirahama cheats by importing white sand from Australia.

Shirahama's white sand beach.

I really enjoy drives through Japan, they typically offer a wide variety of landscapes in short distances. Big cities, mountain ranges, farms and suburbs can all be seen in an hour's drive. I especially like Japanese mountains. They have a bit of a marble look to them, having a variety of trees with different heights and shades of green in separate clumps.

This road trip was by no means short on driving, the vast majority of our time was spent in the car, upwards of 30 hours over the course of a single three day weekend.

I was the southernmost blonde haired person on the Japanese mainland, I was the southernmost blue eyed person on the Japanese mainland, I was the southernmost American on the Japanese mainland

On our last day of the trip was stopped in another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kumamono Shrine at Nachi Falls.

A beautiful site, Nachi falls are the second highest in Japan, and possibly the most stunning. To this day it's still a popular buddhist pilgrimage destination.

Our campsite next to a derelict Japanese house.

I love a good road trip, and this one was no different. This trip was probably one of my favorites that I've had in Japan, we saw a lot of historic sites, took in some great nature, met a few nice people and had ourselves a good time driving through narrow mountain roads.

If It's Koya, It Has to be Good

Continued from "Nothing Beats a Good Trip"

From Osaka we headed south down the Kii peninsula to Mt. Koya. Not only a mountain, Koya is also a small town that was settled in 819 by Kukai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism and is now home to a huge amount of temples in a pretty small area. All of them are strikingly beautiful, making it more than worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Mt. Koya, orange temple and stone lanterns.

Danjogaran Saito

A torii gate at Mt. Koya

One of the most popular destinations at Mt. Koya is the Okunoin Cemetery, the largest in Japan. Many important Japanese figures are buried here, including monks, artists, and feudal lords.

A small statue wearing a bib-looking thing.

A torii in the forest, reminds me of that moon of Endor.

A white temply lookin thing

Nothing Beats a Good Trip

As I've mentioned before, the Japanese expressway is sinfully expensive, however if you have an ETC card (an automatic billing device drilled into your car) it's only ¥1,000 (~$10 USD) to go where ever you want on the weekends. Unfortunately for us, we didn't have an ETC card. So, our main roads of choice became Japan National Routes 1 and 42.

The Japanese National Route system is almost identical to the U.S. route system. These are roads that a generation ago were the best way of getting around on wheels, but now are not much more than typical two lane roads, fully stocked with stop signs and traffic lights. Thankfully making frequent stops anywhere that feels interesting was built into the plan.

Our first stop would be in Iga, in Mie prefecture, over 300 kilometers (186 miles) away and a 7+ hours drive. Formerly the home to legendary samurai and ninja Hatori Hanzo, Iga is now a quaint small town that lies between the Nagoya and Osaka metropolises. Our purpose would be to check out the ninja museum and surrounding areas.

The poet Basho's former house, shaped like a funny bell shaped hat he used to wear.

Fortunately there was a ninja show with reenactors doing things that ninjas do. Unfortunately we missed the last showing by a couple of minutes. Apparently Iga's level of tourism isn't high enough to warrant showings past 4:00pm. But the surrounding areas were pleasant with some nice scenery.

Ninja's gotta go too

From Iga we headed further west towards Nara, where we hoped to find lodging or a place to camp.

Half ice cream sandwich have ice cream bar.

From time to time we made stops at roadside convenience stores, which is where I discovered this technological breakthrough.

Arriving in Nara as night fel, we immediately noticed how dead the city was. While it was formerly the capital of Japan 1,600 years ago, and today is a huge tourist destination, almost all of those tourists come on day trips from Kyoto or Osaka. This made our search for a place to stay all the more difficult. We made some phone calls, a friend had stayed with someone in Nara the year before and we tried getting in contact with her, no luck. After considering our options over Vietnamese food we decided we'd go to Osaka, the second biggest city in Japan, only a half hour's drive away, and a place where Ryan knew of a place we could sleep.

Like Tokyo, we knew that Osaka would be impossible to park the car in, and since Nara is a tourist hotspot, its parking is just plain expensive. So we drove to a suburban city between the two, parked in a lot near a station (at the wonderfully low price of ¥500/$5)and made the rest of the journey via train.

Osaka was a bit of a whirlwind, we made friends on with some university students that gave us some recommendations on what to do for the night. Walked into an empty Australian bar on a whim, only to have the owner apologize, close up shop, make some phone calls, and show us to a basement nightclub filled with people and smiles. Our long travels got the better of us at around 3 in the morning, probably much earlier than the rest of the city called it quits.

I'd like to say that this is abnormal attire, but I simply cannot.

Around the corner from the nightclub, literally, was where we'd be staying for the night, a lovely little capsule hotel.

Japanese Food

Before I came to Japan, all I could think about in terms of "Japanese food" was really just sushi and Benihana.  Since arriving here in March, I've found a huge variety of foods that I never knew existed.  What follows is a selection of my favorites.

When most Americans hear ramen they think Cup Noodle, the cheap, pretty crappy and microwaveable quick meal. But similar to TV dinners, Cup Noodle is just a crappy knock off of the real thing. Ramen is noodles in a broth with a wide variety of ingredients, typically onions and slices of pork, and eating it fresh from a restaurant is absolutely delicious and bowls of it are extremely popular here in Japan. Every city has huge amount of ramen restaurants, which range from hip and modern chains to being sold out out of the back of an old van.  The bowl above a a regional variety originating from Hokkaido, a large northern Japanese island , notable for its use of miso broth. That chunk of butter on top is not a standard topping, but damn was it a good one.

Without a doubt my favorite Japanese food, but this one is the most difficult to describe.  Often called a Japanese pancake or omelet, but it isn't really like either and at the same time somewhere in between.  Basically, it's a mix of cabbage and flour along with anything else you want, then traditionally covered in a special okonomiyaki sauce (which I liken to sweet BBQ sauce), seaweed flakes, and a ton of mayonaise (whatever you may consider to be a lot of mayonaise to put on something that isn't a sandwich, triple it).  Even those standards are often substituted out for something else, making it a food that I think that anyone can enjoy.

Fondue with a lot more ingredients.  Usually shabu-shabu restaurants are an all-you-can-eat fare with a time limit.  You get a lot of raw ingredients such as beef, chicken, pork and vegetables; your choice of broths, which can placed together in a specialized pot (above), and sauces.  You throw in what you want, in the broth you want, dip it in the sauce you want and enjoy. It's fun, easy and simple.

Tonkatsu is breaded, deep-fried pork cutlets, usually served over rice with some egg topping, not much else to it.  Often sold at convenience stores for a quick, cheap meal, but it's best had at dedicated katsu restaurants, where it's delicious and still quite cheap.

Japanese cuisine has a lot of noodles, and Udon is one of mainstays in this category.  White, thick and soft, they can be eaten either hot or cold, but I prefer them hot.  Like ramen, they are good for a quick meal, but  tend to be presented much more simply with few toppings.  The bowl of Udon above was bought at a small train station restaurant counter. Designed with people in a hurry in mind, you order what you want, within 30 seconds your meals is presented to you, you consume it at a small counter standing up, and off you go.

One of the more unique Japanese dishes is takoyaki, or octopus balls.  Simply batter with octopus meat inside that is cooked using a specialized pan (seen above) and topped with the same toppings as Okonomiyaki (special sauce, mayo, seaweed and anything else you'd like). They make great finger food and because of this can always be found at food stalls at Japanese festivals. It's also not uncommon to see specialized takoyaki cooking vans that pop up late into the evening around busy night life areas all over Japan. Photo credit: Loozrboy

Like shabu-shabu, nabe is a hot pot, but unlike shabu-shabu, nabe is a slow cooking meal.  Meant for cold winters during which your dinner party huddles around the burner and your meals comes in due time as you bond.  You are essentially making a large stew, with a wide array of vegetables, meats and other nice foods. Here we have cabbage, mushrooms, tofu, chicken balls, Korean kimchi (pickled/fermented cabbage) all in a miso broth.

If I had to pin down one food as "Japanese Fast Food" this would be it, despite the fact that the Japanese love McDonald's. Gyudon means "beef over rice" and it is just that. Of all the meals listed here, this is the cheapest. In the summer the gyudon chain restaurants go on a price war, seeing who can lay claim on the cheapest bowl in Japan, prices can drop to the mid-200 yen range and lines start stretching out the door. This dish isn't for everyone, the quality of meat they use isn't the best, but I really enjoy the mix of beef and onions, especially the varieties with cheese. Above you can see the 3-cheese gyudon from the Sukiya chain.

Every traditional style Japanese meal you have will come with tsukemono, which are tasty pickled vegetables. Not just cucumbers get pickled, but radish, turnips, ginger, onion and probably whatever else is laying around. If you like western style pickled cucumbers, you'll enjoy these. Photo credit: Jose Wolff

Another extremely common side dish, miso soup. I don't love nor hate miso soup, but I do get tired of it from time to time. Photo credit: mroach

Made from buckwheat flour, soba is a noodle that can be on both the cheap and gourmet sides of the spectrum. Making soba is often done with great care by someone who has been in the craft for decades, or at least learned from someone that was. I has a subtle taste and really shows how the Japanese take pride in perfecting their craft, no matter what it may be. Photo credit: avlxyz

Despite the name, yakisoba is not made from buckwheat soba noodles. They are fairly typical noodles, but are fried, similar to lo mein. It definitely one of my favorites and can always be found at Japanese festivals. It is also the only one of these dishes that is so easy to make I can do it in my own, tiny, crippled kitchen. Photo credit: Jeremy Keith

These fermented beans are without a doubt the most controversial of all Japanese foods. Most Japanese people love them and most foreigners don't, and those that don't find it completely revolting. It has an extremely strong taste and an equally strong smell that even the fans will tell you is a bit offensive. When I first arrived in the country, I was often asked by my new co-workers if I had tried it yet, so when the opportunity came during school lunch to try it I went for it.

It's pretty disgusting, gag inducing disgusting, and not something I'd recommend anyone eat. There are plenty of people that really enjoy it, but I'm just not one of them, but it is absolutely something that everyone should try when in Japan (honestly!). The Japanese recognize that most people find it revolting and praise anyone that gives it a shot, just be sure to have something to get the taste out of your mouth handy in case you have the same reaction that I did. Photo credit: Tom Magliery

Almost all of the foods above have restaurants that exclusively serve different varieties of the dish, except maybe natto, tsukemono and miso soup. So, if there's ever an urge for any of them, I know exactly where to go. Now, a lot these are not a part your typical Japanese meal, just as hamburgers and BBQ aren't in America. Typical meals more often than not include some variation of white rice, fish and miso soup, sometimes even for all three meals of the day.  A fairly healthy choice, there's no doubt that the Japanese diet is one of the contributing factors to the country's overall life expectancy of 82.6 years, the highest in the world.