Last month, I suffered extreme Japan nostalgia.
“Study abroad nostalgia” is a common phenomenon among people who study abroad. In the autumn of 2010, I studied in Nagoya, Japan at a small Catholic university called Nanzan University. I wrote at length about my stay, but the simplest way I can describe it is as the most transforming experience I’ve had in my life to date. Upon my return to the States after the program had ended, I thought that I’d never recover from the loss of leaving my second home. Four and half years since, I have recovered. For the most part. I know that whatever the future brings, it will never be the same as my time studying at Nanzan, even if I do go back to Japan one day. I also know that I will experience many more events in life that will change and move me.
And yet, that painful nostalgia does come back on occasion. It usually lasts for a day or two, but last month, it persisted for a week… two weeks… three… I knew I had to overcome it, somehow.
I resorted to food.
During this episode, I missed Japanese convenience stores and how they offer healthy snacks and meals. Almost every morning during my time in Nagoya, I would walk to the nearest convenience store and pick up salmon onigiri — salmon-filled rice balls wrapped in a sheet of seaweed — for breakfast. I found myself yearning for more of that. I looked up YouTube videos and cooking blogs on how to make onigiri myself. Upon discovering how easy it is, I went to my local grocery store for supplies.
My first homemade onigiri were hand-molded and filled with canned salmon mixed with soy sauce. They were lumpy and varied in size, but despite all that, they were delicious. Since then, I’ve bought a triangle mold, experimented with fillings, and learned just how many cups of uncooked I need to make X number of onigiri. They’re perfect for any time of the day.
While watching Cooking With Dog episodes in my spare time, I realized that I could take this another step. I began experimenting with simple Japanese recipes at home and buying Japanese food products from the local Asian grocery store. I can cook omurice and tamagoyaki pretty well now, and I occasionally season my rice with furikake. I’d like to make Japanese-style fried chicken (called karaage), oyakodon, sukiyaki, and okonomiyaki. My Amazon wishlist has recent additions called Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji and The Japanese Kitchen by Hiroko Shimbo.
What helped me finally get over the study abroad nostalgia last month, though, was bento.
Bento is a Japanese-style lunch box. It’s a single-serving meal and contains any combination of rice, meat, fish, and vegetables. Unlike the lunches people might bring to school or work in the United States, bento has a rich history and a huge market within Japan. You can pick up a bento at any convenience store, supermarket, train station, and specialty shop. Many wives make them for their husbands and children in the early morning. There’s a whole philosophy behind bento that would take more than one blog post to talk about, so I’ll just touch on the most relevant one.
Japanese cuisine has a color rule: each meal must have something white, black, red, green, and yellow. This variety promises nutrition in the form of various vegetables, meats, and rice. It also promises visual appeal. The red color wets the appetite, the yellow brings to mind the joy of eating, the green provides contrast and soothes the mind, the white produces an image of cleanliness and freshness, and the black brings elegance to the dish. Bento is not exempt from this color rule, and though I don’t always include all five, I try to manage three or four of them.
Since bringing it to work every day, bento has transformed lunchtime for me. I eat healthy portions, I don’t spend extra money on a cafeteria meal, I’m eating more vegetables, and I’m always happy with my lunch of the day. But more importantly, it’s brought a little of Japan back into my life — something I thought impossible since returning from Nagoya. Because of that, I think I’m finally able to let go of what was and instead look toward what will be.
- “The Latest Bento Trends in Japan.” Japanology Plus. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3pM0b562AWM> (5:45)