It’s no secret that Japan has some of the finest foods in the world: teriyaki, sushi, matcha tea, and other traditional fare are renowned for their taste, nutritional content and artistic beauty. In fact, the Japanese diet has received its share of attention from the medical community for its apparent ability to foster long, healthy lives.
There is another side to Japan’s cuisine; and it’s a weird side to be sure. The Japanese indeed know how to prepare a healthy meal and how to eat a very balanced diet, rich in quality proteins and low in processed sugar and fat. But then, along come oddities like the nearly incomprehensible wasp crackers (yes, they contain visible pieces of dead wasps), canned bread, octopus ice cream, and wasabi beer (something akin to sauerkraut cola).
Japan is a land of dichotomy; a place where the finest grade of ceremonial matcha tea is sold alongside “dried crab chips,” and cheese pizzas topped with grapes. Perhaps that’s not surprising in a place where the intricacies and artistic finery of Kabuki theater occupy the same place in the national consciousness as Sumo wrestling and a strange form of pinball gambling called pachinko.
Here are a few of the odder offerings one might see on a walk through the streets of Tokyo, Osaka, or Yokohama:
Wasabi beer in vending machines:
There’s nothing wrong with beer, and not a thing bad about wasabi, a sort of Japanese horseradish. Combining the two is a difficult concept to swallow, but the stuff is quite popular these days. Sold in fine bars and from street side vending machines, the brew is even making a splash in the West, showing up in Los Angeles and New York bars. Wonders never cease.
Neither a retro 60s soft-rock group nor an ancient form of money, canned bread is a Japanese specialty. Imagine bread in a can and that’s pretty much it. Also sold from ubiquitous public vending machines, canned bread is already a staple among Tokyo’s techie set and the anime generation. Since the 1990s, bread in a can has been available in green tea, strawberry, “milk,” and chocolate flavors.
(Note: If there is one dominant trait of the Japanese food industry, it is their penchant for flavoring literally everything, especially things that usually are not flavored outside Japan. Bread in a can is a perfect example of this inexplicable practice).
Also appearing under the name “natto,” the beans are typically served over rice or alongside other foods. That’s a good thing, as they are, even by Japanese standards, quite, how do the French say, “malodorante.” That translates as “smells to high Heaven” in colloquial American English. This “dish” was discovered by accident in the 11th century by some soldiers who inadvertently left partially cooked beans in a container. A few days later, they opened it up and, voila, the 11th century version of Japanese natto. They ate it, loved it, and the rest is odiferous history. The Japanese eat this stuff by the shovelful with, so far, no ill effects.
Tamagogani (dried, small soft-shell crabs):
Tamagogani is not the Japanese mafia. That’s the yakuza, about whom more another time. Tamogogani are bite-sized crabs, factory-processed, dried, salted, and bagged for easy and quick consumption. Unlike cooked crabs, tamagogani are the entire animal, soft shell and all. Very popular and sold in fine food stores all over Japan, dried crabs are a hit in other Asian cities and a few Western ones as well.
Octopus ice cream:
Not sold in regular food stores (thankfully), Japanese call these novelty flavors “strange ice cream.” Vendors in tourist parks seem to think the oddball flavors are a smart idea. There are, among others, squid-ink ice cream (it looks black), raw horse meat ice cream, shark fin, sea urchin, beer-flavored, natto (see “fermented beans, above) ice cream, and of course, octopus ice cream. Those intrepid vendors put other, equally shocking things into their soft-serve cones as well, including fried shrimp, eel chunks, cow tongue pieces, boiled eggs, pickles, crabs, soybeans, eggplant slivers, and chicken wing pieces. Tourists often say that chicken wing ice cream tastes just like chicken, which is better than practically everything else in the “strange ice cream” genre.
It is a mystery why the Japanese want to categorize some foods as “candy” when they are anything but. Umeboshi is merely a pickled plum masquerading as candy. Even many Japanese find the taste too much to take. It’s two dominant flavors, to loosely use that word, consist of extreme sourness and off-the-charts saltiness. The very few people who love umeboshi speak of it having “the flavor of the ocean,” which is a nice way of saying it’s salty in the extreme.
White Yogurt Pepsi
Pepsi Cola makes several odd flavors exclusively for the Japanese market, and “white yogurt” Pepsi is one of the stranger offerings from the soft drink giant. The Japanese love cola drinks and they also love yogurt. Therefore, the logic goes, they will love yogurt-flavored Pepsi. Well, contrary to all human intuition in the Western world, the stuff is a huge hit in the land of the rising sun. Sold in frosty bottles with glaringly bright labels, yogurt Pepsi contains no real yogurt, but it does contain real Pepsi. Who knows? It might be just the thing to wash down a handful of pickled plums.
Visitors to Japan are struck by countless culinary oddities, many of which appear in on-street vending machines which also dispense bottles of beer, vodka, and a home-grown powerhouse liquor called shochu. In all fairness, this dual cuisine world of “good-food-bad-food” is present in most developed nations. Asians who visit the U.S. are often shocked to see many of the yuckier American convenience foods, grocery store abominations like “frozen breakfast pizza” and 100 percent artificial orange-flavored drinks.
Even so, there’s nothing like a big plateful of wasp crackers and a serving of cabbage pancakes covered with mayonnaise to start the day. Traveling in Japan can be an enlightening experience, but it’s a deadly game for wasps.