Oysters: A Cautionary Tale

One of my favourite things about Japan is the food, obviously. For me, all foreign supermarkets are treasure troves of enchanting delights, but Japan’s are really a cut above the rest. Not least because oysters are a fraction of the cost here (and are sold in supermarkets). I spy them one day glinting and calling to me from the fish section, blending into the background, packaged in casual Styrofoam trays and thrown in with sundry, less impressive fishy items. They’re next to the fake crab sticks for Christ’s sake! Someone call a therapist, these oysters do not know their worth!

Their literal worth here is 500yen. THAT’S OYSTERS – PLURAL – FOR 3 POUNDS. I almost vomit in amazement. And then later, I do vomit, but with less amazement and more norovirus.

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Turns out, you can’t eat any old oyster raw in Japan. Who knew? (Not me). There are in fact two types of oyster available in Japanese supermarkets, discernible by their respective labels: ones that have been treated and can be eaten raw, and ones that very much require temperatures of 75°+ to literally burn away the sewage they’ve spent years marinating in. One of the pitfalls of being illiterate in Japan and being a devout oyster fan is that there is a 50/50 chance you’ll consume shit.

I always looked down on people who only ate cooked oysters as…. ABSOLUTE PUSSIES. But I get my comeuppance for this attitude when I have to suppress the urge to puke my guts up midway through teaching 10 year-olds the words ‘bread’, ‘shaved ice’ and ‘grilled fish’ –the holy trinity of common Western food staples.

So that’s not great. And what’s more, this isn’t any old lesson. Of all the hours, of all the days, of all the weeks that my body decides to begin its battle against oyster poisoning, it chooses the hour of the observation lesson: The hour that parents have come to observe the mysterious foreigner bestowing a wealth of useful English vocabulary (bread / shaved ice / grilled fish) upon their little angels.

10 minutes in I get the familiar sweaty shakes of hangovers passed (wait…. is this a hangover? Did I get pissed last night and I don’t even remember? Is this what happens post 30? No, hang on, can’t be… there are no apology texts on my phone and I’m not experiencing acute levels of shame and fear [yet]…). Before I know it, the bile is rising and I’m hop-footing it out of the classroom played out to the sounds of ‘Ehhhhhh??’ (An absolute classic Japanese reaction sound, to be discussed later). The parents can’t all fit in the classroom BECAUSE THERE ARE LIKE 25 OF THEM so they’re lining the walls of the corridor outside. What this means is that I have to shuffle urgently, and retching, down a wedding confetti-style tunnel of stunned parents to the nearest toilet, returning later to finish the lesson with bloodshot eyes.

This would be a slightly uncomfortable situation in the UK, but the ‘if you’re sick, you’re sick’ mindset tends to save us from prolonged embarrassment. However, this is Japan, a culture famed for its etiquette and social rules that foreigners regularly trip up on. If closing a draw with your knee or eating whilst walking is frowned upon, how the fuck is this gonna go down?

(Luckily, my co-workers are tremendously sympathetic and kind, and urge me to go home – though not before making me tell them specifically which toilets I’d used that day so that they could go and disinfect them…. Cool.)

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