Quest for Pizza

23 03 2008

I Hunger! In Japan, pizza can be a perilous endeavor. If you’re not careful, you could end up with a pie featuring fish-eggs, shrimp, mayonnaise, and corn.   For this reason, I don’t go in search of pizza very often.  I never really ordered it in the States because it didn’t measure up to my very exacting standards. And if American pizza can’t pass muster, then you know how well Japanese pizza is gonna fare!

This afternoon, however, I found myself with a fierce, “sell-my-own-grandmother” craving for a slice of pizza. I thought, “It’ll pass.”  Sadly, an hour later, I was even hungrier and still in desperate need of crispy, meaty, melty goodness. This was a definite problem. As if strange ingredients weren’t enough of an issue, take-out pizza in Japan is ridiculously expensive. A “medium” from our local Pizzza Hut measures 21 cm, which comes out to about 8 inches square–the size of an American “small”.   To add insult to injury, said “medium” pizza costs anywhere from 1800 to 2500 yen, and that’s just for the crispy Italian style crust and basic toppings! There are, however, a few bread shops in town that bake traditional Italian-style pizzas and sell by-the-slice for about $2.00. So I set out, in the pouring rain, for a shop one of my co-workers had recommended a while back.

Having lived in Japan for just under two years, I’ve come to a few critical conclusions based on my observations of the people who live here. First of all, it doesn’t matter where you go in the world, rain makes drivers stupid. For some reason, water falling from the sky has the miraculous power to drain mental function from ordinary men and women and turn them into blithering idiots behind the wheel of a car. This is true in Atlanta, Georgia. It is true in Vienna, Austria, and it is true in Miyakonojo, Japan.

In defense of Japanese drivers, I have to say it really isn’t their fault. They can’t help it.  When young people pay their money–and at $3,000 it is a rather considerable sum–to take driving lessons, they’re not actually learning how to drive. What they’re learning is how to pass the driving test, which involves memorizing three different driving courses. Come test day, the testing officer tells them which course they’ll have to demonstrate, and they go through their paces. There are no other cars on the course at the time of the test, thus no way to practice their turns and signals and such in traffic.  Now, when you have a nation of people who learned to pass a driving test in lieu of practical driving experience, it makes for interesting hijinks on the road even on a bright, sunshiney day. When there’s weather, it gets wild and wacky!

As I made my careful way down the road towards the Chopin Pastisserie, I encountered no fewer than seven people who were suddenly gripped by an all-encompassing need to stop right then and there to avail themselves of a nearby vending machine selling coffee, tea, and/or cigarettes. Said people, with barely more than a flash of the turn signal, just pulled over to the side of the road in the middle of traffic, forcing the rest of us to a) brake like maniacs, b) go around them, and c) try to avoid any oblivious cyclists, pedestrians and/or aged grandmothers with walkers. You think I’m joking about the grandmas, but I’m convinced they get together and have conventions on how best to bring traffic to a complete standstill on various and sundry streets and highways!

Those stationary obstacles cleared, I had to be careful of drivers who had decided that rain meant they didn’t have to check for oncoming traffic before pulling out onto a busy street! Now, granted, the streets of Miyakonojo don’t exactly offer the best visibility around, but ya know…they put those directional mirrors up there for a reason! Having avoided at least three t-bone collisions, I finally turned the corner and approached the bread shop only to find the parking lot full.  Comedy ensued due to at least four cars stuck in said lot because there were two cars half-in and half out of the driveway, thus blocking traffic in both directions. Did it occur to any of these drivers to simply go around the block once, or maybe even park just a ways down the street in a vacant lot? Nope. Because the Japanese Matrix says that if you are visiting Establishment A, you MUST park in Establishment A’s parking lot. There are no other options.  Even if it seems that other options might be available, there is some deep and fundamental reason why they aren’t really viable options at all.   I am not plugged in to the Japanese Matrix. I parked in the lot down the street and walked up to the bread shop while our hapless parking-lot denizens were still trying to figure out how to get four people out and two people in.

I blame the French for the sorry state of bread in Japan. Everything is flake pastry, filled with cream, and white, white, white. If you want a rustic, whole-wheat, whole-grain bread, you’re out of luck. If you happen to request that your local bread shop make said rustic, whole-wheat, whole-grain bread, everyone there will look at you as if you’ve just announced that you plan to go running through the rice-fields naked as the day you were born singing Good Morning, Starshine! at the top of your lungs. At least this place had some variety, which is rare. Alas, they were out of pizza–and whole wheat walnut rolls.

On the way back to the car, I decided to hit up another place, Tsuki no Hone.  It used to be a full-service restaurant, but the folks here in the JO just didn’t know what to do with an authentic Italian restaurant. (What’s this saltimbocca business? Where the hell is my spaghetti with mentaiko and seaweed??) So, the proprietor, who studied culinary arts in Italy for about three years, set up a take-away service featuring three or four different hand-made pastas, a couple of meat dishes, several pizzas and some desserts. He also managed to figure out how to fold the space-time continuum, because for the life of me, I could NOT find his shop today! I drive past this thing ALL THE TIME! And every time, I think, “Oh! That’s where it is!”

This brings me to my second conclusion about Japan. Life here would be so much easier if there were street signs. Hell, even just NAMING the streets or giving them numbers would create such a glorious revolution that people would fall to their knees and weep for joy. Seriously. I went up to Fukuoka with a couple of my friends, and the whole time we were there, we could not find ONE PERSON who knew where anything was or how to get there. Our first day, we wanted to eat bagels at this famous place that ships bagel dough in from New York every morning. We had a neighborhood and a relative range of city blocks to work with, but that’s about it. After wandering for about an hour during which time we stopped and asked three or four other business owners for directions with no luck, we stumbled upon it by accident.  Turns out it was literally right around the corner from one of the shops where we’d asked for directions.  This bagel place has been in the neighborhood for well on seven years, as has this other business. Right around the corner, and the guy had NO IDEA how to get to the bagel shop. Un-believable. Even the taxi drivers are stumped as to how to get to anywhere that isn’t a mall or a train station. My school is very famous in this area of Japan. EVERYONE knows it. Likewise, just about everyone knows that our school has a Kyoshokuin Jutaku–that’s Teacher Apartments for them as don’t speak Japanese. These facts notwithstanding, I have had no less than five taxi drivers ask ME how to get back to my apartment from various places in town. Again, I say, street names. They would be SO helpful!

Stymied by the rain-triggered cloaking device surrounding the Italian restaurant, I decided to make a last-ditch effort and try the bread shop at my local supermarket.  Lo and behold–bless them!–they had the pizza I’d been searching for! Not a kernel of corn nor a hint of mayonnaise in sight, each slice was simply dressed in tomato sauce, peperoni, onions, green peppers and cheese. I grabbed two slices for the grand total of 300 yen, along with a small cup of tiramisu ice-cream for afterwards, and headed home to heat them up in my toaster oven–the pizza, not the ice cream.

This brings me to my third observation about life in Japan.  People will go out of their way to patronize a business just because everyone else is going there.  Whether the service is good or not or whether you can get what you want or not is irrelevant.  Everyone goes there, therefore everyone must go there.  However, in the end, the things you get at these popular places never seem to measure up to the things you can get from that little place five minutes’ walk down the street in your own neighborhood.

At any rate, after today’s adventure, I’ll say that food tastes better when you have to struggle for it. It wasn’t perfect pizza, but–great day in the morning!–did it ever hit the spot!



4 responses

23 03 2008

Tiramisu ice cream? Must have! I’d ask you to ship me some, but somehow I think the end result would be … messy. :-p Japanese pizza sounds absolutely frightening. The corn I could handle, but mayonnaise? Blech.

And your stories are absolutely delightful. I’ve said it before, but thank you for bringing the culture to life for those of us who will never see it!


24 03 2008

Actually, the Tiramisu ice cream was made by Haagen Daas. Here, that means it comes in a TEEENY little cup, but they still manage to charge just about the same price as for a full pint in the States. And yes. Japanese pizza can be frightening, but when they get it right–which does occasionally happen in the specialty places or in restaurants–it is a little piece of Italian heaven on earth!

Oh, and thanks for following me with the switch. It isn’t always easy to “vote with your feet”, but it’s nice to know that some of my friends are still reading. 🙂

24 03 2008

Ah, new person here. I followed you over from your LJ from the Reborn community, hope that’s not too stalker-ish. (;;)

It’s interesting reading your experiences in Japan, your writing is so clear. About the pizza, lol mayonnaise really isn’t that bad, honest!

25 03 2008

I am LLOL at the Japanese directions. We had similar experiences in Ireland. Every road is either the Cork road or the Dublin road. Directions include such items as, “when you get to the field of cows, turn left…that’ll be the Cork road, then turn again at the pub…” Jaysus.

Mayonnaise. On pizza? I weep for you.

Also? I can’t find the subscribe button. ::scowl::

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