Curries, Cans and Carriages: mundane things I like about Japan

1. Curry

Vending machine, minus Tommy Lee Jones

If you’re always hearing about how British curry is nothing like the ‘real’ thing, then Japanese curry might as well not be classified as food – and all the better for it. Japanese curry contains rice, meat and some kind of brown sauce, but that’s about as far as the similarities to anything you’ll ever have tasted previously go. Firstly and most obviously, the rice is different – it’s the fantastic sticky rice you get in Japan, which works remarkably well in this dish that happens to share a name with something that’s very popular on the Indian subcontinent (if you’re feeling particularly ravenous, order an extra-large portion of rice to guarantee that sinking feeling when you leave your stool at the end of the meal). Secondly, the sauce is ultra-tasty, comes in copious quantities, and is impossible to describe without it sounding utterly disgusting. The only way I can think of to explain its taste is moderately spicy, slightly sweet and a bit fruity, which just makes it sound like the vile stuff you can get with chips in the UK. Thirdly, the solid stuff that comes with the curry is dynamite (not literally, otherwise I would have been killed or at least severely maimed when I tried to eat it). What I mean by that is that it’s hot, delicious and baked in breadcrumbs. The substantial stuff that comes with a Japanese curry can be meaty (usually pork or a burger) or sometimes vegetarian, like the creamy koroke. As far as relatively fast food that won’t kill you goes, I can’t think of anything better than curry in Japan.

2. Vending machines
I’m not referring here to machines with crazy dispensing mechanisms, the kind that swing hydraulic arms this way and that before plucking your beverage out of obscurity and thrusting it into your hand. No, I’m just talking about the Common Garden Jidohanbaiki, which can be found approximately once every two hundred metres in a major city, and once every five hundred metres in the countryside.

All that light comes froma fizzy drinks machine

Japanese vending machines tend to congregate in threes, standing solemnly side-by-side, selling virtually identical products from different companies. Nine times out of ten, one of the three machines will inexplicably have a picture of Tommy Lee Jones on the front (actually, it is perfectly easy to explain – he’s an brand ambassador for major Japanese drinks manufacturer Suntory). The actual juice is contained deep within the machines, but on the front you can see plastic models of all the drinks cans and bottles the machine dispenses, usually spread over three shelves.

There are few things more disconcerting in mundane Japanese life than vending machines at night. The drinks display, coin slot and change slot are all illuminated with such ferocious intensity that the vending machine lights up everything within a ten-metre arc of its front. They also hum loudly, on account of the fact that they not only have to keep things cool but also hot. Yes, that’s right, Japanese outdoor vending machines distribute hot coffee, tea and soup. In cans. On a freezing cold day, there’s nothing better than shoving a couple of silver coins in the slot, pressing the button under the model can of coffee (with the sign in red to show it’s hot), and being issued with a small aluminium can of caffeine and sugar so hot it’s impossible to hold without gloves. Let’s set aside the fact that the coffee is excessively sweet, staggeringly expensive (£1 for a wee can) and horrendously bad for the environment, being able to get a hot coffee instantly in any built-up area is a novelty that doesn’t wear off.
3. Trains
Again, I’m not talking about bullet trains here. I’m referring to the somewhat slower machines that rumble their way around Japan’s urban and suburban areas, especially the Tokyo/Kanto area. Imagine the London Underground. Take away the piss, sweat and crap. Now make ten of them, running side-by-side and in and out of each other, all of them run by different companies. The sheer size of Tokyo compared to the UK capital means there are far more stations and many more lines, running both above and below ground.
The other big difference between the Tokyo mass transit system and London’s underground is that in Tokyo, a lot of the lines are run by different companies – and yet it all works. The different lines can be quite a way away from each other within the station, and particularly if you don’t know exactly where you’re going you can – once you’ve factored in distance to get lost and look at signs and maps – end up walking one or two kilometres through a big station like Shinjuku or Shibuya just to change trains. Because the network has grown and grown over time, the newer lines also tend to be much deeper underground – one of the newest lines at Roppongi station is something crazy like six sets of escalators underground. I know this because I climbed the emergency stairs next to the escalators for a wheeze.

Enoshima, following an extended subway ride

A journey on the Tokyo metro is an aural delight. There are all sorts of chimes, jingles and tunes that play as the trains arrive at and depart from each station. Japan Raliways’ Yamanote Line – roughly the equivalent of the Circle Line in London – has a different melody that plays when you arrive at each destination, my personal favourite being the da-da-da-ding-da-ding-d-ding that sails out of the speakers at Ebisu (look it up on YouTube). Inside the carriages, paper adverts promoting everything from beer to flats to hair loss treatment hang down from the ceiling. And yes, I too wondered why drunks don’t rip them down and throw them at each other. I get the feeling they wouldn’t last 15 minutes in on the Lothian Road route on a Friday night.

These little trains also run out of the city centre and down the coast. A lovely route is the line that runs to Enoshima in Kamakura, an otherwise standard subway train that cruises along between the road and the sea, the light from the sun reflecting off the Pacific and bouncing into the carriage whilst little bells ring to stop the traffic when road and rail intersect. But enough of the sentiment and the poetry – whilst these trains are fine for commuting around town, you can end up traveling a fair distance on one. And whilst standing is okay for fifteen minutes, you really don’t want to be holding onto a strap coming down from the ceiling for two hours. Yes, the Tokyo area really is that big.

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