Recently, I met up with an old friend for afternoon tea in a hotel in central Tokyo. She arrived at our usual meeting point with a shopping bag. She had just been to a department store nearby where she had bought certain types of French cheese available in Japan which she missed. She apparently made frequent visits there, although they cost much more in Tokyo than in Geneva. We both used to work there, where all kinds of European cheeses were available for reasonable prices. As most Japanese people had never seen or eaten cheese before the end of WWII and it has become popular here only in the last few decades, I asked her if she had loved it all her life. She said she had developed a taste for European cheese while living in Switzerland.
I also love cheese now, especially the creamy ones, but I used to hold a negative image of it as a child growing up in the post war Japan. I first learned the word “cheese” in our national language textbook in my fifth year in the elementary school. I guessed from the context that it was something to be eaten, but had no idea what it was. So I raised my hand and asked our teacher what it was. His explanation, which I still remember vividly, was that it was “something like a bar of soap”. Hearing his answer, I could not understand why anyone would want to put such a thing into the mouth. I had heard that rats would sometimes gnaw on soap, but surely not human beings! My teacher might have seen a photo of a piece of cheese, but probably had never smelled it or tasted it prior to answering my question.
Later as a student in America, I was introduced to cheese in sandwiches, burgers, spaghetti, pizza, lasagna, etc. Despite my preconceived notion of what “cheese” might be, I had no problem of enjoying those dishes. The kinds of cheeses I used to taste in the United States did not bother my sense of smell at all. I remember, however, the Europeans I used to know in university saying that what they found in America was not the “real cheese”.
In that sense, I came to know the real thing for the first time in my life while staying in Europe in mid 1970s. One day I joined an excursion to Strassburg in Alsace, France, organized by the University of Heidelberg, where I was following a language course for several months. During our visits to many historical buildings in the charming city, we had some free time to roam around on our own. A classmate of mine I was with wanted to stop at a fromagerie, a cheese shop, so I went with her. Inside, there were other customers being waited on, so I looked around and saw cheeses in different colors in all shapes and sizes. Some on the shelves looked as big as car tires. I was astonished and impressed by so many variety, but the smell there was too much for me to bear, so I said to my friend that I would wait for her outside.
My first stay in Europe could have been the golden opportunity for me to learn to appreciate the “real cheese”. But, the powerful odor in the shop discouraged me to even try tasting some of them. So I stayed away from any smelly European cheese while in Heidelberg. My attitude toward it began to change, however, after my second arrival in Europe, this time in Geneva in the early 1980s. Different kinds of cheeses on a big platter were always served during the course of French dinner, just before the sweet dessert at the end. In the beginning, certain cheeses still put me off, but seeing how other people enjoy eating it, I began to start tasting a small piece of different kinds. By doing so, I slowly came to appreciate European cheese, and I now really love some of them.
The Japanese cuisine has now become quite popular around the world. But I have heard that many non-Japanese people who have lived here for a number of years still have a problem with natto, as I had with cheese in Europe. Natto, cooked and fermented soybean, is popularly eaten with hot steamed rice for breakfast. It is inexpensive, readily available in any grocery store and offers excellent nutritional values. But those who are unable to or refuse to eat it complain about its sliminess and unpleasant odor. My advice to them is that a common saying of “seeing is believing” does not apply to food and they should not even go by their sense of smell. As I had experienced, that aspect can be overcome if they recognize the item’s nutritional values and be courageous enough to start tasting it.