Finding Banh Mi at the Vietnam Festival

After my sister-in-law’s mother came to Japan for a visit, she left us a giant jar of homemade Vietnamese pickles. The mass of shredded daikon radish and carrots rested in their sweetly sour brine in the refrigerator, waiting to be piled on top of everything. I dreamt of banh mi.

I fell in love with banh mi around the same time my sister fell in love with her Vietnamese-American wife. While it would be nice to say otherwise, it was more coincidence than fate; I met my future sister-in-law for the first time at a Tower Records store in Tokyo, and she was not dressed in an ao dai offering me my first life-changing banh mi. By then I’d already fallen hard for the combination of cilantro, cucumbers sliced thin, and perfectly seasoned pickles mounded on top of a protein of choice, all nestled into a crunchy baguette that wasn’t quite a baguette. Sandwiches no longer had to be pieces of bread bookending mounds of meat covered in cheese, the types of faux meals only to be ordered once in a while when you had the time to feel ill later. I believed, and still do, that you could reasonably, and financially, eat banh mi every day. And as if to validate my theory, I commuted to the Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich Deli whenever I was in New York.

 The Quad Show. Photo by Kanako Shimura.

The Quad Show. Photo by Kanako Shimura.

If I’m honest, though, those pickles are one reason I so love banh mi. I always order the chicken – no jalepenos – because the “special banh mi” with its smear of fatty pate tends to dull the vinegary crunch of those delicious, julienned root vegetables. When I learned late last week that the Vietnam festival would be held that weekend, I immediately thought of those pickles, that crunchy yet fluffy bread, and cilantro.

Every summer, Yoyogi Park hosts a few cultural festivals centered on a particular country – in this case, Vietnam. There are allegedly some shows featuring traditional attire and dances, but “cultural festival” is essentially code in Japanese for a food festival with some bank remittance stalls thrown in. My sister-in-law had just left to visit family in the U.S. and do all of our American shopping a few days prior, so my sister and I were left to judge the food stalls together. I wasn’t too worried. With taste buds honed by New York banh mi, we were confident in our ability to find the best at the Vietnam festival.

food stalls
 Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

falling sign
durian
picnic tables

We started with a reasonable strategy: check out all of the food vendors before settling on one. Most of the food stalls were hosted by restaurants around Tokyo and featured large plastic signs that boasted giant pictures of pho, banh xeo, and che. With hunger and the heat taking their toll, we settled on a vendor specializing in banh mi, with one of the longer lines extending before it. We inched towards the front, waiting around 20 minutes before being handed our packets of banh mi, disappointingly plucked off a pile of pre-assembled, pre-bagged sandwiches.

The robust sandwich I’d imagined and expected, fat with pickles and garnished with a sprig or two of cilantro, was crush flat as I pulled out something that resembled a quesadilla. There was a generous smear of pate and two slices of the usual mystery meat that usually lurks within the sandwich when you order the special banh mi. A cucumber slice had a brief cameo, along with a few carrots that had escaped the pull of gravity while the sandwich had been propped up on its end. Worst of all, the pickles were cut like fat crinkle cut fries, and most of them lay at the bottom of the bag, within sight but out of reach.

disappointing banh mi

“Oh, oh no,” I said. My sister let out a disappointed wail that quickly turned into laughter as she pulled her banh mi out of its bag and viewed it in its full glory.

I could hear my sister-in-law laughing from across the ocean, then, and blaming our seemingly genetic naïveté, our sheltered upbringing that was certainly the cause of such a blind purchase – a whopping 500 yen! – of a pathetic attempt at authentic Vietnamese food. I don’t blame her – I take it as a personal affront when friends go to sushi places that feature dragon-shaped rolls with tempura sticking out of the ends and/or anything that involves cream cheese – but that didn’t prevent me from praying that she knew, somehow, that finishing that “banh mi” was sufficient punishment.

 Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

 Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

 I got this awesome pig hat.

I got this awesome pig hat.

We cleansed our palettes and respective memories with coconut and lime gelato for my sister and a slushy, icy coconut drink with tapioca pearls on the bottom for me. Sugar did its work and we went home sweaty and covered in sand kicked up by the wind, but laughing at our banh mi disaster.

As Biggie once said, “if you don’t know, now you know,” and with some knowledge gained and money lost, now I do. Until next year, Vietnam festival. I’ll be back for my banh mi revenge.

Unplugging at the Sanja Festival

I probably spend what would be defined as an unhealthy amount of time on the Internet for someone who is not a tween. With most of my friends living outside Japan, a career as a freelance writer with clients in the U.S., and a preference for reading the news in English, I am always well connected.

It’s not a bad thing in itself, but spend enough time on the Internet and you’ll eventually find some appalling stuff. Recently, a few curious clicks led me to a widely read forum for foreigners for Tokyo and their relationship advice. Of course, this was going to be bad, but given that I consciously choose to spend my time watching true crime shows, I am, by nature, morbidly curious. I kept reading.

There’s a strange fetishization of white male foreigners here in Japan, which places them in somewhat high demand, regardless of physical attractiveness or the ability to be interesting. As a non-white, foreign, male co-worker once described it, certain women seem to want to live out a fantasy of having a white, "exotic," boyfriend, based on information and stereotypes gleaned from Hollywood chick flicks, and white foreign men seem only too happy to oblige. So it wasn’t that much of a surprise to read a poster saying:

“…[W]hat she really wants is this funny athletic white guys attention and love for a day or maybe the weekend or more. And if she doesn’t, who cares, theres ten more out there that do…” [All typos and spelling errors from the original.]

I know. I shouldn’t be surprised. The last time I made the mistake of hooking up with a guy here, he mentioned my “great English,” which was almost as offensive as his attempts at sex which bordered on the truly horrendous. The reminder of how disposable women seem to the English-speaking guys here was the final straw in a shitty week that was at least entertaining when Trump was involved, but not so much when you realize that your potential dating pool is full of dicks.

 Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

As if sensing the impending doom and gloom, my sister texted me last Saturday about checking out the Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa. It’s a huge festival that features neighborhood mikoshis – large, portable altars – hoisted along the main road of Asakusa Shrine. It’s a three-day event, with the purification ceremony taking place on Saturday. Mikoshi were transported to the shrine, raised up as it was purified, then carried back to its neighborhood. It may sound zen, except that it’s built a reputation as an event at which yakuza show off their tattoos with pride.

We were, admittedly, looking for yakuza, but found out later that the tattoo-baring took place on Sunday. Despite the fact that we missed out on the tattoos, the event is like a textile designer’s dream. Every neighborhood has its own unique happi, a short-sleeved garment worn at festivals, which boasts its own crest, design, and colors.

 Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

 Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

 Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

 Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

 Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

The energy of the event was palpable as the heavy mikoshi swayed one way, then another. Each neighborhood team set up a human wall to control the lurching, as those carrying the mikoshi shouted out a rhythm. A predominantly working-class neighborhood, the men were bigger and burlier than most you’d see in Tokyo and the strength and energy required to transport the mikoshi – one usually requires forty people to lift it up – are impressive.

The irony of escaping from the disgust from reading a forum for foreigners at a Japanese traditional festival isn’t lost on me. As a third culture kid, I live in a space where everything seems a bit off and strange, where nothing quite fits. Where you’re stuck looking one way but identifying as another. Where you end up living online because you can’t begin to relate to most of the people around you. And where, apparently, when one culture disappoints, you end up seeking some sort of cleansing effect in another.

 Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

 Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

sanja mikoshi
sanja smile
 Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Yesterday, walking home from the gym, thinking about living in Japan, a rap song from long ago, made for a yakuza movie, began to play in my head. Along with lyrics about violence and social ostracization, there were two lines in particular that I had always liked, that had always replayed in my head.

tteyuuka,” he sang, “yononaka naseba naru.”

It’s a Japanese proverb that translates literally to “if you take action, it will become.” And while I may not be making best friends here any time soon, or plunging back into the dismal dating pool that is Tokyo, or feeling less like an alien, maybe, having a good day here – unplugged – isn’t all that impossible.