For our Christmas lunch this year, the Monocle Tokyo bureau went along the road to Mimet (pictured), a local favourite run by our neighbours. The food was, as usual, delicious: a salad of crunchy seasonal vegetables, a soufflé-light “quiche” (minus the buttery pastry), grilled chicken with a small serving of homemade ratatouille and some pasta with shungiku, a dark-green edible chrysanthemum. It struck me that a festive lunch in London would have involved a pile of potatoes (which I would happily have wolfed down), a calorific pudding (hopefully laden with cream) and maybe a round of chocolates to finish it all off. No such thing in Tokyo. There were no roast potatoes, nothing sweet and no expectation of either. As we walked back to the office, I overcame the urge to peel off to the nearest conbini (convenience store) for a hit of Meiji chocolate or Premium Pocky.
On the same day I read that Japan has been hailed as the world’s healthiest country. A survey of OECD countries put Japan in the top spot thanks to its high life expectancy, low obesity rates and low rates of alcohol consumption. The Japanese diet isn’t perfect (deep-fried pork cutlet sandwich on white bread, anyone?) and some of the conbini lunch offerings are not my cup of tea but overall it’s easy to see why Japanese people are generally so slim and long-living. Portions are smaller, food is still tied to the seasons and people aren’t programmed to expect pudding at the end of a meal. If a box of biscuits is opened in the office, people take just the one and leave it at that. Food education also starts early. School lunches are taken as seriously as any subject and good habits set Japanese children on the path of healthy eating.
Many other nations grappling with obesity could take note. Over Christmas, as I remained in Japan this year, I’ve had to do without the mince pies, Christmas pud and even turkey. But I’ll be hoping that my years in Japan have at least lengthened my own life expectancy.