Hirakata, Osaka | Summer, 2005 | 20 years old

One of the things peculiar to studying in Japan is the fact that it’s one of the very few nations that has what could legitimately be called “raving fans.” There are people doing the study abroad program here for the main purpose of finding the ever-elusive Japanese Girlfriend, as though simply pining away at the concept will suddenly make them appealing to the local ladies. There are far, far too many people here who will put on Animax, the all-animation channel on cable or satellite or whatever, and simply watch whatever they have scheduled for the given time frame. And, for that matter, I’m sure there are students here who love the idea that the drinking age is only twenty, and that going out drinking on a Monday night isn’t so much “alcoholic” as it is “sociable.”

Needless to say, not having any real interest in any of the above activities, it’s kind of easy to feel a bit out of place here. That isn’t to say that there aren’t other students here whose idea of an incredible Saturday consists of “cheap ramen, cheap karaoke, and the arcade,” and it is those students who make my comparatively down-to-earth lifestyle here tolerable and, indeed, fun.

In addition to the fact that I haven’t cared much about Japanese cartoons or comics for years, I have another shocking confession to make: I don’t really like seafood that much. In a country that consists mostly of island with some ocean thrown in, this can be something of a very bad move. As a result, I don’t eat a whole lot of sushi, for example, or for that matter anything generally considered to be “high cuisine.”

As it turns out, however, this may be one of the best things to have happened to me when it comes to living on a relatively tight budget as a college student, because it turns out that Japan has some of the best damn cheap, quick food in the world. There is a place right by campus that offers fresh ramen (well, the noodles are pre-prepared and come in a bag, but it’s different from the flash-fried instant type we’re all so familiar with), and the 99-yen shop offers delicious inari sushi for, of course, about a hundred yen once you factor in tax. Likewise, every convenience store sells unfathomably delicious nikuman-based filled steamed buns, with anything from pork and mixed vegetables in them to curry to what ostensibly passes as “pizza-like.” Udon and soba shops are plentiful, offering everything from zaru udon/soba (cold noodles with dipping sauce) to gyuuniku shigure udon, a noodle soup with cooked thinly sliced beef and ginger that attains heretofore unprecedented levels of delicious.

Between the cheap noodles and cheap entry-level sushi and the whatever-we-can-put-in-a-steamed-bun-man rolls everywhere, it’s really pretty easy to find yourself addicted to Japanese fast food, and I will be the first to say that I’m rather frustrated at the thought that all of the delicious and cheap meals I can find around here and have already begun to take for granted are all but unheard of in the US, where Japanese restaurants are seemingly limited to expensive sushi places and places where you can get a steak twice the size of anything you’d ever see in Japan itself.

In other words, if I miss one thing about Japan, it’ll be the food I can’t get back home. I’m never going back to instant ramen.

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