After moving to Japan, I couldn’t help but notice my pants kept getting tighter. Where was all that healthy food I was promised?

p36_memoir02Everyone knows Japanese food is healthy … right? I mean, the Japanese eat lots of veggies, sushi is a staple (or so we Westerners think) and there’s actually a book called Japanese Women Don’t Get Old or Fat. So why—several months into my stay in Japan—was I gaining weight instead of losing it? Well, one thing no one tells you about Japanese food is just how good it is. I mean ridiculously, deliciously, give-up- your-dreams-of-turning-vegetarian good.

Let me explain: Japanese cuisine is not just sushi. Far from it. It’s izakaya restaurants filled with tapa after way-too-affordable tapa. It’s bottomless bowls of udon and ramen and curry (oh my!). It’s deep-fried deliciousness you never even dreamed of. And … it’s onigiri.

Yes, those tiny little rice balls hold a large share of the blame for the fresh-off-the-boat fifteen I put on during my first couple of years in Japan. See, as a teacher with a far-from-routine teach- ing schedule, I needed an easy snack to satisfy my growling stomach between classes. And once I learned about onigiri, I made it a daily tradition to hop in my car and head to the nearest konbini (convenience store) to grab my new favourite snack. I would make a beeline for the refrigerator, where waiting for me were little triangles of rice, decorated with a perfect piece of seaweed, hiding a delightful surprise inside. From salmon sushi to sour plum, spicy tuna to savoury beef, it was a selection like you’d find in a Canadian cereal aisle. And I took great joy out of trying each and every one of them until I had chosen my top five, one for each day of my work week.

Now keep in mind, these were snacks—they came between a hearty lunch and an overly indulgent dinner. (Lots and lots of izakayas, remember?) And it wasn’t until a good two years into my stay, when I was teaching the word “snack” to a slender and beautiful student, that I realized my very big mistake.

“A snack is a small, light dish you eat between meals. You know, like onigiri,” I said.

It took several other examples for her to figure out what I was talking about. I couldn’t understand why it took her so long to grasp the concept until she corrected me: “Onigiri is not a snack. It has enough calories to be a full meal.”Oops.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the same slender and beautiful student opened my eyes to the fact that my “healthy” breakfast, comprised of two slices of toast with peanut butter and banana (fruit! protein!), was in fact the equivalent of four pieces of bread. (They slice their loaves quite a bit thicker than we do here in Canada.) At least my mysterious weight gain was no longer a mystery.

Once I discovered the error of my ways (and joined a gym!), I was able to fit into my old pairs of pants again. But it only took two years to realize my very big mistake.


Kathleen spent years living in and travelling around Japan—and blogging about her adventures while she was at it. Now back in Toronto, Kathleen continues to write about her life-changing experience abroad when she can—in between discovering new and delicious Japanese restaurants in the city, working as a copywriter and raising her baby boy.

Illustration by Chieko Watanabe