The World of Shig Sato: Food in Japan

A reader discovering the world of Shig Sato will soon learn that food becomes in interesting side character – Miki’s breakfast of miso soup and rice, Abe’s early life growing up in a ramen shop, Ses Fujimori’s love of okonomiyaki, Shig’s lunchtime katsudon, even Mos Hishida’s nickname, a result of his steady diet of Japanese-style hamburgers. Any reader not familiar with Japanese cuisine might wonder at it all. In truth, the food of Japan is as simple as it is varied.

The simple: fish and rice. But is that really all there is? It doesn’t begin to encompass the world of sushi, much less the whole of Japanese cuisine. The popular Japan Talk website lists 100 types of sushi. Notice that fish, vegetables, eggs, meat – it’s all included. Sushi, sashimi, makiit can take minutes to prepare, a lifetime to master.sushi

The importance of rice in Japanese culture cannot be overstated. The language uses the word gohan for “meal” as well as “cooked rice.” Gohan is a part of each word signifying breakfast, lunch and supper. In feudal times, wealth was measured how much rice one possessed and peasants were keenly appreciative of a payment in rice for their labor – coins were no good to them when they had to eat. Japan’s propensity for natural disasters, and it’s involvement in war, often led to a scarcity of food. Rice stockpiles were worth fighting for.

As an nation comprised of many islands large and small, a reader would be right in thinking that all types of seafood is a part of the Japanese cuisine, from the common tuna to the exotic –  pufferfish, anyone?

What many Western readers of the Shig Sato series may not realize is that farming – livestock, grain, vegetable, fruit, any combination and variety – can be found in most of the nation’s 47 prefectures. Almost any grocery store or market will have fresh local produce, seasonal fruit, cuts of meat and poultry, and packaged foods like curry mixes and spices. (When my in-laws came to visit from Canada, flour and vanilla were found and donuts were produced in an afternoon!)

One may not think of baked goods when thinking of Japanese cuisine, yet the tasty sweets and snacks appeal to young and old. And it doesn’t take much to find pan – bread – and some have even embraced the staple, when it’s made with rice flour.bakedgoodies

The varied: Being an international city, Tokyo is home to an array of dining experiences any world traveler would appreciate. Michelin stars are not unknown in the city. Gourmets and foodies alike can find were the finest food is served, and also the stores that sell the products for those daring and talented enough to create at home.

Regional specialties abound. I’ll conclude with this list of a prefecture’s favorite dish. See if you don’t recognize some, and have probably eaten some others (and some not!).

Hokkaido – Grilled mutten

Aomori – Sea urchin and abalone

Miyagi – Oysters

Yamagata – Potato stewsweetpotatoes

Fukushima – Pickled herring

Ishikawa – Turnip sushi

Gifu – Potatoes with sweet chestnuts

Nagano – Buckwheat dumplings

Aichi – Deep fried chicken wings

Tochigi – Giyouza (potsticker) dumplings

Chiba – Steamed peanuts

Kanagawa – Curry

Mie – Lobster

Shiga – Duck hot pot

Osaka – Okonomiyaki

Hyogo – Kobe’s famous beer-fed beefkobebeef

Tottori – Snow crab

Tokushima – Buckwheat porridge

Nagasaki – Sasebo burger (thanks to the navy base there)

Kukamoto – Sliced horsemeat

Miyazaki – Kyushu-style fried chicken

Okinawa – Fried pork belly

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Shig visits Miki – an excerpt from The Gangster’s Son

Detective Endo was surprised to learn that behind the wheel of a patrol car, Inspector Sato drove like a Formula 1 driver and that the streets of Tokyo were his particular racetrack. Never had Endo clenched his stomach muscles so tightly, nor gripped a dashboard so severely, as he did while Sato sped through early morning traffic, leaving Meguro and heading north on Yamate-dori to Shinjuku.FINIFN

“Inspector?” Endo finally managed to say.

“I want to look in on my wife for a few minutes.” Sato said, his eyes fixed on the street. “You don’t mind, do you?”



In an unending series of turns, Sato kept his eyes on the road but his mind was on his wife, Miki. Before the strokes that had left her an invalid, she was a physician specializing in gerontology, working with wealthy and indigent alike, author or co-author of dozens of studies on the effects of aging, works esteemed by the Ministry of Health. Now she was the patient, with heart and lung and blood pressure issues that confined her to bed.

Sato loved his wife and loved her spirit. It was Miki who knew that her Shig needed to go back to criminal investigation after working diplomatic security for so long, to get back to a true sense of himself. She knew he was reluctant to return to Azabu for his last month with the department despite wanting it so badly, because it meant far more hours away from her.

Miki Sato smiled her weak, sweet smile and said, “Shigeru Sato, just do your best. Now go.”

And he did.

Sato sped past Okubo train station and then down another busy street until he turned again and abruptly stopped. Endo saw a modest two-story home with cheerful flowers in pots lined up next to the front door. Sato said, “I won’t be a minute.”

Before Endo could reply, Sato was out of the car and in the house.

His wife’s nurse was awake and in the kitchen off to the side of the front of the house, and watched Sato slip through the doors of his home.

“You’re easier to read than the newspapers,” Mai Sakamoto said to herself as she smiled, bowed, and said “good morning” as Sato quietly kicked off his shoes, stepped into the kitchen, said hello, and took the small breakfast tray she had just prepared.

Sakamoto knew Sato would take it to his wife. She knew Sato ate every meal he could with his wife, if only to encourage her to take some nourishment. Her heart melted at such devotion.

Sakamoto was at that indeterminable age – anywhere between 30 and 50, and nothing about her hair, skin, eyes, lips, chin, neck, posture, poise, or personality betrayed her. She and Miki Sato were friends and colleagues of many years, despite Miki being a doctor and Sakamoto a nurse. There were few doctors Sakamoto respected more than Miki Sato. But what Sakamoto particularly liked about Miki was her easygoing personality, one that made everyone feel warm and welcome. It never crossed Sakamoto’s mind not to help her friend during her illness.

Sakamoto knew the Satos loved each other deeply, and sometimes acted as if they were still honeymooners. She had been sure the inspector would look in sometime Saturday morning, even at such an early hour.

Sakamoto left her patient in the care of her husband, walked to the front door, and slid it open. Endo got out of the car, stood, and bowed slightly.

After exchanging their “Good mornings,” Sakamoto asked, “Would you care for some tea?”

Endo again bowed slightly and said, “No thank you, I’m fine.”

“Has it been a busy night?”

“It’s been quite busy, yes. A waitress was killed in Roppongi. A college student.”

“Oh, poor girl.”

“We’ll get to the bottom of it.”

Sakamoto smiled at Endo’s earnestness. “Oh, I’m sure of it,” she said, and slid the door closed.

Sakamoto turned on the small radio in the kitchen where the volume was set low. She searched for the news, which she found right away: “Police say a girl found dead in Roppongi Hills last night may have been the victim of a brutal beating.”

Sakamoto listened to a few more details about Kimi Yamada’s short life, knowing this was Inspector Sato’s case. She wondered if the inspector had heard the report in the next room.

“You all right?” Shig Sato asked his wife as he sat next to her with the breakfast tray.

“I’m fine.” Miki had been up for an hour, watching the morning light move across the room, listening to Sakamoto’s domestic rustling. Her words were slow to form.

“I slept well,” Miki managed to say, stretching, turning to her side, but smiling at her husband. “It’s so early.”

“Are you hungry?”

“A little.”

“Here, take some soup,” Sato said.

Miki always found his look of concern touching. “Rice and tea, thank you. You take the miso.”

“Fine,” Sato said. He managed to slurp down the bowl, and some soup remained on the corner of his mouth. Miki tried to reach up to wipe it away. Sato helped her.

He could not keep his eyes off her. He worried about her getting her rest. Pale, impossibly thin, wrapped in a soft cotton yukata, he knew she had difficulty finding a comfortable pose for sleeping. By noon, it would be too hot and humid for sleep.

“Who did you leave out front this time?” Miki asked.

“Endo. He’s new. We just finished with a witness. I wanted to stop by before going back.”

“Going well?”

“As well as can be expected,’ Sato said. “Some pieces fit, some don’t. Have you gotten any rest?”

“I feel fine.”

It was true. Miki had managed to sleep well during the night, and seeing her husband lifted her spirits. Miki could see that her husband’s eyes were tired, but he had that energy that only came from working on a case. She did so enjoy seeing it. Miki knew her husband and knew his sense of duty, but she also knew his devotion to her and their marriage. She was never surprised, morning, afternoon or evening, when he took time out of his day to stop by.

She was thinking about it just before he arrived. He’d often shout, “I’m home.”

“That you, darling?” she would say.

“Where are you?” he would ask.

“The back.”

“The back” was a small yard, no more than two yards by four yards, but it held flower boxes and her father’s two juniper bonsai. Shig laid in the stonework himself. It was her favorite spot.

Shig would peer out the back door to gaze at her, and liked what he saw: a slim woman with natural grace, a ready smile, short dark hair with just the beginning of gray. In June, she’d be dressed in her gardening outfit: Bermuda shorts, a plain white blouse, and a navy blue cardigan. She often sat in the back and read. He would come to the back and they would talk. It was never a long interlude, but it was something he knew would brighten her day, and make their long spells apart bearable.

Even before her strokes, Miki Sato knew her angina was serious. Her cardiologist said it was plain arterial deterioration. She knew it ran in her family. But the spasms, frightening spasms that called for quick action — as she got older, she cut back on her practice simply to rest. Shig worried then, and after the strokes, became more of a nursemaid than Miki was prepared for, but knew it came out of love. Miki treasured her husband’s concern for her.

That Saturday morning, Miki Sato could tell something was on her husband’s mind.

“Shigeru, what is it?”

He sighed. “Did I do the right thing, asking to go back to Azabu?”

“Of course.”

“I could retire now, if I wanted to. I could go fishing,” he said.

“Yes, you haven’t been in some time. You could go fishing, and then you would be bored with it. You go fishing to unwind, not kill time.”

Sato said nothing, his apprehension still in midair.

“Well,” Sato finally said, and Miki knew it was time for him to leave.

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. Go.” Miki tried to read her husband’s mood, which was difficult when he had a case.

Sato smiled. “Will you be all right?”

“Mai said she can stay today but has to leave for a while this evening. She can stay tonight if we need her.”

But Sato could see that her breathing was labored. He hated having to say “I have to go,” but he did, and got onto his feet as boyishly as a man of 60 could manage.

Miki smiled. “I’ll be here,” she said.

“I’ll be back,” he said, the silent promise in his voice reassuring her.

Slipping past Sakamoto and preparing to leave, he looked up at the nurse. He could have asked how his wife was, but he already knew the answer, and wanted to spare Sakamoto from saying things he did not want said aloud anyway. Instead, Sato said a sincere “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Inspector.”

Sakamoto followed Sato outside after he slid open the door. She watched as he stepped over to the patrol car, got behind the wheel, gunned the engine a little, and drove off. She watched the patrol car as it reached the end of the lane and abruptly turned right, and disappeared.

She then returned to her patient.

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