Photo by David Nakamura
On more than a few occasions, Japan has been accused, even by its own leaders, of being a racially homogeneous and xenophobic country. Closed to the outside world for three centuries until the late 1800s, the island nation prizes conformity and order and still maintains a strict immigration policy, despite facing one of the most dramatic population declines on the globe.
In truth, the country has sizable pockets of Koreans and Chinese, and the people of the southern island of Okinawa are ethnically distinct. And in the port city of Nagasaki, which was Japan's only point of contact with the world during the isolation period, outside influences are apparent not only in the handful of church steeples dotting the skyline, but in the city's prized noodle soup: chanpon (or champon).
Translated roughly to "a mix of things," chanpon is a blend of Chinese stir-fry, heavy on the seafood, dumped atop a bed of noodles in a thick chicken or pork broth. Created by a Chinese innkeeper who was hosting Chinese exchange students in Nagasaki more than a century ago, chanpon is best eaten at the long-established restaurants in the city's small Chinatown, which spans a few downtown blocks.
On a recent trip to Nagasaki, I joined my friend Sierra Sroka, an English teacher at a Japanese school about two hours outside the city, for dinner at Kouzanrou. The restaurant has been serving chanpon and other Chinese-influenced dishes for 64 years.
Sierra, whom I had met when she spent a few days as an exchange student from Minnesota at the Hiroshima high school where I taught English eight years ago, is allergic to seafood. Instead, she opted for the stir-fried beef and peppers. I, on the other hand, eagerly ordered the "Tokujo" house special chanpon, featuring 20 different ingredients including shrimp, squid, mussels, two types of fishcake, pork, chicken meatballs, quail egg, shiitake mushrooms, bean sprouts, bamboo, and edible fungus.
The dish was so rich it was almost creamy. The stir fry was prepared separately and then added to the noodles, steeped in broth. It was far heartier than, say, Japanese ramen or udon, and by the time I finished the bowl, I was stuffed.
As we ate, the proprietor, Gyokkan Oh, gave us a brief history of his restaurant. He explained that his grandfather, Fumitake Oh, who was of Chinese descent, started the shop just after World War II, when Nagasaki was the site of the world's second atomic bomb. The younger Oh is one-quarter Chinese--making him a mix of things. But he sheepishly confided that he doesn't speak Mandarin or Cantonese.
In addition to champon, Chinese restaurants in Nagasaki also serve saraudon, another stir-fried dish often featuring crispy noodles as the base. For me, chanpon and saraudon were a welcome respite from usual rice-heavy Japanese meals, and I was happy to learn that a fast-food chain called Ringer Hut, of which there are plenty in Tokyo, features both dishes.
I certainly preferred the noodles to another dish of foreign influence that Sierra introduced me to in Sasebo, home of the U.S. Navy base about two hours outside Nagasaki: the Sasebo Burger.
We sampled one at Big Man, where the fry cook took our order in perfect English. Our friend Garrett, a Navy officer who handles base relations with the town of Sasebo, speculated that the cook was likely the mixed-race son of a base employee and a Japanese. Another Japanese picked up a take-out order, then got into a massive vehicle that resembled a Humvee, which looks even more ridiculous on the narrow Japanese streets. An American military police vehicle moved slowly down the main drag, on patrol to make sure Navy personnel behaved themselves in the off-hours.
I was disappointed in the Sasebo Burger, whose patty was all but drowned out by the bun and mayo. The bacon was better, ham-like and not brittle like the kind usually used in the States. In this case, at least, I concluded that sometimes it is wise to let different cultures specialize in what they do best.