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Bagels in Japan

Japan flag. Bagels In Japan

Bridging Cultures with Bagels

Joanne G. Yoshida

February, 2010

This morning as I bite into a bagel with cream cheese and chives, I face my biggest cultural dilemma since moving to Japan ten years ago---has a bagel from Japan out-noshed a New York bagel?

When I first came to Japan, meeting someone new generally began with a few preliminary questions. After "How are you?"- these included --- where are you from, are you married, and can you eat raw fish? At the next level of intimacy, the question became "What do you miss most about your country?"

My answer was always:

"A bagel."

Then, to make sure they understood the strength of my conviction, I'd add:

"There's nothing like a New York bagel."

Hokkaido bagel with Kunisaki chives.

Bagels are starting to sprout up by the dozen in bread shops, coffee shops and train stations in Japan, even in the small city in the south where I live. The taste is mostly light and soft; and although there are great-tasting breads, none that I tried had yet come close enough to compare with a New York Bagel. Nor could I even imagine a cross-cultural comparison between these and the dense, chewy New York varieties that I practically grew up. My meeting with a bagel from Hokkaido was the first time I had to even re-consider my stance.

The encounter took place on the eighth floor of our 'hometown' department store, Tokiwa. Every year they hold a week-long Hokkaido Festival where vendors of well-known products from the northern most island of Japan-- known for ramen and Sapporo beer--- come to our southern most island of Japan to sell their gastronomic wares.

As I wandered through carefully arranged displays of fresh fleshy salmon, live crabs in wooden boats, strips of kon-bu (dried seaweed) with placards that boast number one in Japan, and fish eggs sparkling in the purest pinks and oranges, the last thing I expected to find was the bagel that could out-flavor New York.

When I first noticed the bagel counter between a booth which sold kani-shumai (crab dumplings) and mentaiko furikake (fish egg flakes to sprinkle over rice), I did what any loyal New Yorker would have done. I snubbed my nose and continued along, fairly certain that this was some kind of unusual bread shaped into rounds, using the word 'bagel' to give it panache. I made up a jingle in my head as I passed it by, Bagels from Hokkaido, couldn't be, no no, this is not the Bronx.

But the smell of flour and freshly baked dough wafted towards me along with vendors' voices shouting "Irrashaimase" to welcome customers to their stalls. I hesitantly backed up and reached towards a tupperware container of samples. This is when I noticed the flavors---Fig-and-Walnut, Kinako and Soy Milk, Rye Flour grown in Hokkaido, Hokkaido Milk, and one which included sweet red beans - all written in black Japanese characters on white cards with prices placed at the front of baskets of each variety.

Hokkaido bagels.

Hokkaido smoked salmon.

Some of my favorite tastes both east and west, rolled into chewy doughy rounds; a texture described in Japanese as "mochi-mochi," which is just as a good bagel should be. I could hardly believe my taste buds. I asked my daughter if she would like to get just one. She saw my NY barrier breaking down slightly and went for the opportunity to claim one Hokkaido Pumpkin Bagel. I reached for a Fig-and-Walnut, and handed the two in a basket, along with 460 yen, to the cashier (the equivalent in dollars of about five dollars, or $2.50 each).

I held the bag with the two bagels--- along with our other purchases of corn soup for my daughter, dried fish for my husband, and kon-bu--- as we exited the lively festival by way of the smelt.

Tokachi bagel banner.

Biting into the Hokkaido Tokachi bagel with cream cheese and fresh 'chives'--- which were actually negi (scallions) that had been given to us with the dirt still on them by a farmer in the countryside just outside of our city--- I realize it's not a contest between two cultures but rather an intersection. I remember family gatherings in Long Island. Meeting cousins, aunts and uncles was always accompanied by a spread of cream cheese and bagels---poppy seed, sesame, onion, and egg---with smoked salmon, white fish and kippered herring added on special occasions.

A taste from New York re-appearing in a new incarnation at the Hokkaido Festival was beginning to make sense. Things that we love find us. Or, do we follow our life's path to find them? And do they become more 'real' the second time with the taste of our new life experiences layered on top? It was as if a new wisdom had sprouted up from the out of the rye --where there's smoked and salted fish, there ought to be bagels; and where there's a delicious bagel like this, I'm sure to be "home".

Text + images by Joanne G. Yoshida

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