Becoming the "Local Foreigner" in Japan

The small restaurant sladh bar that became my Favourite place to eat and spens an evening

To experience the cuisine of the country I love trying out the local places. It is here that you get a true taste of the culture as the dishes are not prepared for tourists or changed according to tourist expectations. While living in Japan I came across this very quaint and small restaurant slash bar in the neighbourhood where I lived. This little place became my regular stop on Thursday and Sunday evenings.

Becoming the "Local Foreigner" in Japan

The owner busy preparing a dish at the grill

The owners were an old Japanes couple who hardly spoke any English but they were so welcoming. I would sit up front at the grill area and watch as the owner prepared all the delicious dishes. I would always have my little phrase book at hand and he would point to the dish name he was preparing and sometimes made some amendments as he would use different ingredients.

I would usually try out a new dish that one of my students had told me about but my favourite was definitely Okonomiyaki, a Japanese savoury pancake containing a variety of ingredients. The name literally means “grilled as you like it” in Japanese . Toppings and batters tend to vary according to region or city where I would try them out.

In most versions okonomiyaki is made with shredded cabbage and a pancake-like batter, but that’s where the similarities end. There are a two general styles of okonomiyaki: Hiroshima-style and Kansai-style. Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is layered like a giant omelette and often includes yakisoba on the inside, with a fried egg on top. Kansai-style okonomiyaki on the other hand is mixed together before being cooked like a pancake. I asked the owners permission to take some photos as he was preparing this dish for me and a friend that I brought along to taste Japanese pancake for the first time.

Every now and again one of the customers would be able to speak a bit of English and would always translate questions and answers between me and the owner. He loved hearing about my home country South-Africa and I would always have loads of questions about the dishes he prepares and the Japanese food customs. I got to practice my very bad Japanese and the other customers go to practice their limited English.

This went on for a couple of weeks and one night a local walked in and seeing me seated at the grill area  gave me the evil eye and turned to the owner. He then asked quite rudely “who is this foreigner  and why is she sitting in here.”

The owner gave him a puzzled look and said: ” she is the local foreigner, so she is welcome here.”

The guy nodded and then actually turned towards me and greeted me. And just like that I was part of the local community and got invited to the local events that spring.