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January 4, 2014

Japan’s Dirty Little Secret. ~ Brenna Fischer

I love getting my passport stamped!

I love the excitement of deciding where to go. I love the feeling of taking off from one country and landing in another and I love experiencing all the new sights, sounds, smells and tastes!

Over the years, I have found that the best way to get a snapshot of a new culture is to take a trip to the grocery store or food market. The food found in the grocery store and the people buying it can tell you a lot.

For instance, when I lived in South Korea, I noticed that the generation of late 20’s to early 30’s did not spend that much time in grocery stores at all. They have succumbed to the easy western influence of fast food and convenience.

Instead, the elderly women of the families can be seen frequenting the fish and meat departments looking for the cheapest prices for the biggest cuts. This way they can cut the meat up into very small pieces and spread it out over several meals, a habit carried over from war-time Korea in an effort to spread the protein and calories from meat into every dish. It’s a brilliant strategy for survival and frugality but a nightmare for a visiting vegan or vegetarian.

On the other hand, it seemed that in Thailand, the younger generation of both men and women with young families spent more time shopping for food at road side stands and maintained a diet of mostly fruits, vegetables, rice and coconut milk-based curries. They consume meat as well but far less than the Koreans and in considerably more concentrated amounts.

I have now been living in Okinawa Japan for two years.

In that time the most significant thing I have noticed about shopping habits and grocery stores in general, is that the majority of the Japanese diet is made up of fresh, locally grown produce, rice and fish.

They tend to stick to the outside of the store where all of the fruits, vegetables and meat are sold, only buying enough for a few days so that things won’t go bad. This kind of diet, coupled with their love for walking, biking and gardening keep them healthy, fit and moving.

But the Japanese have a dirty little secret.

Yes, they are fit and healthy but they are also involved in an on-going, long-term love affair with sugar. Japanese grocery stores are riddled with candies, cookies and cakes. Sweet treats are nestled in every dark corner and hidden crevasse. Their only saving grace in this “battle of the sweet tooth” is that they love to share!

This unique cultural combination makes the KitKat the perfect Japanese indulgence.

It is sweet, delicious and comes in four pieces to share with friends. KitKats are also bought as good-luck gifts and exchanged regularly based on the similar sounding Japanese phrase, “Kitto Katsu,” meaning “surely win.” Also, the Japanese don’t seem to mind sticking with the same five or six basic ingredients for all their meals as long as the flavor or seasonings vary and the same goes for the KitKat.

They found a good thing and they’re sticking with it!

In the US we are used to the original KitKat along with the occasional limited edition white or dark chocolate. However, while in Australia I was introduced to Cookies n’ Cream, and in England, I found that Crunchy Peanut Butter and Orange are popular.

Japan, however, has by far, the craziest variety of KitKat flavors, including: Wasabi, Green Tea, Blueberry, Cheese (surprising for a culture that consumes little to no dairy), Soy Sauce and Purple Sweet Potato! Which speaks directly to their collective sugar addiction. Most of these flavors are savory in nature but not in Japan. They make even savory flavors like soy sauce and wasabi sweet! There’s just no stopping them.

I enjoy seeking out these cultural snapshots on my travels and have learned a lot about cultures through the buying, preparing and eating of their culture’s food. However, my personal KitKat Quest has created a new, fun and silly way to experience the different cultures and I plan to continue the search for the newest and strangest KitKat flavors!

What part of a culture do you think provides the best snapshot?

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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Courtesy of the Author.

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Brenna Fischer