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Eating (un)healthy in Japan

Balanced diet?

I LOVE food. There is no clearer way to say it. I suppose I was born with this eternal love for all things edible from around the world. But it must also be said that my mom created such a variety of dishes for our family over the years that I couldn’t help but learn to love them all - Japanese food very much included.

Japan offers up such a diverse assortment of culinary delights, able to stimulate and hook any taste palate from anywhere on the globe. The amount and variety of different dishes, prices and essential quality available in Japan - particularly Tokyo - is incredible. I remember first arriving in the city and having to adjust to essentially a new diet. I started to eat more rice - it was unavoidable - and now had access to an unlimited amount of bento boxes! Such flavours, affordable prices, combinations of vegetables and meats galore. I ate one every day. Sushi was now much cheaper, readily available at “Su-pas’, or supermarkets, and the quality was quite, QUITE a notch above what I had eaten in years gone by. There were breakfast places open 24 hours a day, convenience stores (“conbinis”) at almost every street corner, and lunch and dinner venues open even longer. And then there was late night RAMEN. Full-bodied, warm, and a feast for the taste buds. Did someone just yell “unhealthy”?

Indeed, while the belly was happy, wallet appeased, the only thing to address was finding the right, healthy balance of a decent diet and self-satisfaction. It was here that a battle of wills emerged: Health and Planned Effort (HPE) versus Laziness and Practicality (LP). Because of my peculiar hours at work I found it difficult to cook regularly, especially since I was teaching evening classes. 1-0 to LP. The other complication was that some of my go-to ingredients in the past were more expensive in Japan. From fruits (especially fruits) to certain vegetables. It just didn’t add up. 2-0 to LP. Finally, cooking in a share house just wasn’t inspiring for me. It wasn’t my own kitchen, I didn’t have the will nor money to build up a cupboard filled with the right spices, and the cooking counter could be busy at times. 3-0 LP, final score. In the end, I found comfort in the fact that there was a conscious effort by all supermarkets and convenience stores to create sort of balanced bento boxes and other meals to go, with vegetables  and essential nutrients included - made with quality. A 7-11 in North America was certainly not the same as a 7-11 in Japan.

Did I actually succeed in constructing a healthy new eating routine in my new home? I would say no. The reality was that I stopped cooking altogether and relied heavily on prepared meals that satisfied my appetite and produced so much waste each day. The careful process of planning my lunches and dinners, organising leftovers and sticking to a plan was undone the minute I landed at Narita Airport. Nevertheless, this doesn't have to be the end of the story or only solution. I know many people who make that effort to stay healthy every week. The commitment falters now and then, but for the most part they do succeed. It's about being disciplined, diligent and creative. We can all enjoy world famous Japanese cuisine on a daily basis, indulging in our inner desires for superb food. In the end, it's up to each individual to choose the dietary path which they think is right for them.

As for me, I shall continue my love for all things food. I once asked my mom why she taught me how to eat with chopsticks at such a young age, knowing forks and knives were mostly used in the countries we lived in when I was growing up. She replied matter-of factly, "I just thought you might need it in the future at some point." Indeed I did.

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