Home > Anxiety, Bitching, Disgusting, Food, Japan, Nostalgia, School, Silliness > The Time I Ate School Lunch in Japan

The Time I Ate School Lunch in Japan

February 15, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

For almost a year, I ate a Japanese school lunch Monday through Thursday while working as an English teacher in Kyoto-fu.

To understand why the food was such a shock to me, let me share what I used to eat as my school lunch in middle school and high school. I was notorious for my poor food choices, and a typical meal would consist of french fries with cheese sauce, Ho Hos, sugar cookies, sour cream and onion potato chips, and an orange soda. Sometimes I would mix all these foods together in one dish, then get people to pay me money to eat it. Basically, I’m a disgusting human being.

In Japan, school lunches for elementary and junior high school students are pretty regimented. Everyone eats the same meal at a given school, barring a food allergy or other medical condition. Students serve the food to other students, and are in charge of clean-up as well. Students typically eat in their own classrooms, and a rotating cast of teachers eats with them.

The lunches are fresh-made with no frozen components, and often incorporate seasonal ingredients. At my schools, which were locally famous for their school lunches, a meal usually included a bowl of white rice, some sort of miso soup, a protein dish, two varieties of vegetables, and a half-pint of whole milk. This was a healthy but high-calorie meal that was to be consumed in a 20-minute time frame. I often struggled to finish my lunch within the time limit, but your plate had to be cleaned to avoid the shame of your fellow teachers and students. When I eventually began to habitually leave food behind, I was removed from eating with students and ate alone with the lunch ladies instead. The other teachers were worried my “bad eating habits” would spread to the children and corrupt them.

I also had a tough time with the lunches since I don’t like fish. Yes, I know, Japan was the wrong country for me to try and live, but left to my own devices I could usually manage a fairly fish-free lifestyle. But school lunches were required, and so eyeballs were on my plate most every day. Even the rice, which was usually safe, sometimes contained tiny silvery fish that would get wedged between my teeth for the rest of the day. Large salted or baked fish featured prominently, and maneuvering around a fish skeleton with chopsticks is not an easy feat.

One of the marks of being truly skilled with chopsticks in Japan is how cleanly you leave a fish skeleton. Mine were always left caked with meat and scales as I stabbed desperately at its ribs, but other teachers would present a carcass that looked like it had been dipped in acid. Every muscle, organ, and vein had been removed and carefully ingested, leaving only glistening bones on a perfectly white plate. I’d ham up my incompetence for the kids, spinning a whole fish on my chopstick like a pinwheel. This did not amuse my fellow teachers, but it made the whole lunch torture a little more bearable for me.

Some days, lunch was awesome and I happily guzzled down my fish-free soup and veggies. Other days it was a slog, such as the time lunch included 12 whole crispy fish that smelled like death. Even most of the kids were intimidated by that one, with several attempting to hide their fish in their desks for later disposal. Another tough day was when I was expected to eat the steaming entrails of a large fish. I grabbed the intestine with my chopsticks, brought it to my mouth, then immediately though I was going to be ill. I got a pass that day from the sympathetic school nurse, and the guts remained on my plate. But fins, tails, teeth, and eyeballs were all fair game. I was told that the fins and tails in particular would be great for strengthening my fingernails. All I know is that they tasted terribly bitter.

I also ended up having an ongoing battle with the daily milk ration. I hate drinking plain milk, and usually even eat my cereal dry. To be forced to drink a carton of whole milk on a daily basis was akin to drinking a cup of lard. At first, I asked to simply not get the milk with my meal. This was a no go since everyone had to eat AND drink the same thing. So I just grabbed the carton at the end of lunch, and poured it down the sink while I was supposed to be rinsing it clean. But the kids caught me and ratted me out, and I was told not to waste the milk. I began taking the milk home with me each day, but my dorm-sized fridge was soon filled with nothing but cartons upon cartons of whole milk that I would never use. I emptied them and took the cartons out for recycling, but my neighbors saw the massive bag full of milk and ratted me out (again!) to the school. I wasn’t supposed to be taking the milk home for personal consumption, either. I eventually ended up taking the milk home, then waiting until I visited a friend in a neighboring town and throwing them out there.

But on the whole, Japanese school lunches are fantastic compared to their American counterparts. It is not uncommon for the students to grow their own vegetables on school property, then harvest them and deliver them to the lunch ladies for that day’s meal. I found myself high in the hills of my town on multiple occasions, picking delicate fiddle-head ferns or red rhubarb-like vegetables alongside my students. It was a fun change from the norm, and the next day the food was served up, sauteed and covered with an unfortunately half-inch of dried bonito fish flakes. But I ate it anyway, ignoring the fishy taste and enjoying eating a dish I myself had raised and picked.

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