Sunday, December 25, 2016

Wrapped and Ready

Can a blog of a cliche expat diatribe be interesting?

I remember as a kid being astonished and impressed with edible rice paper candy wrappers. What ingenuity! Edible wrapping paper.  Even if it tastes like nothing, it is still edible wrapping paper. How incredibly cool.

Japan is the land of wrapping.

Here is a photo of an individually plastic wrapped banana for sale at our local 7-11.  Since the peel provides a perfectly good natural wrapping, what on earth is the bag for?   I suppose it provides a surface for the decorative and informative label, but does one really need information about bananas? In any case, the phenomenon is not specific to bananas. The same store also individually plastic wraps its limes.

Another possible explanation is related to the fact that plastic waste in Japan is usually incinerated to generate electricity. Such waste disposal systems benefit from a well separated dry plastic waste stream. Absolutely everyone who buys these individually wrapped bananas, throws away the peel and the bag into carefully separated bins. I suspect the Osaka city government has guaranteed the incinerator operators a daily minimum volume in order for them to justify the upfront investment (over 100 million dollars) of constructing an incineration based 'waste to energy' plant. The point here is that perhaps there is a financial incentive to overuse plastic.

I think the record, at least for common grocery items I have purchased, was a small wheel of Japanese made camembert cheese. The cashier had kindly placed it in a little dainty plastic bag to keep it protected from nearby groceries in my larger grocery bag. I duly opened and placed this bag in the burnable plastic garbage bin, and then turned to the box, which I opened and placed in the cardboard bin. Inside the box (this is starting to sound like a Russian Doll toy I know), I found a little plastic tub with a plastic lid. Finally, out popped the cheese, or so I thought as I naively attempted to slice a piece only to discover, as my knife failed to penetrate, that it was shrinkwrapped in plastic. Removing this last layer of plastic I did finally get to the cheese, which ironically is of course covered in a perfectly good natural rind that served for centuries to protect such cheeses from the elements before the invention of plastic.  I lost count somewhere in the middle of this paragraph, but I think I just recounted six impermeable layers of wrapping around my brie.

There is one last grocery item that a blog about wrapping simply cannot omit. Onigiri. This is some kind of delicious filling such as tuna and mayo or salmon roe (pictured) wrapped in wet sticky rice, which is then wrapped in dry seaweed. Probably back in the edo period they made this for you in a little rustic stall, forming the rice around the delicious inner goop, then wrapping it in seaweed so you could carry it away without getting sticky rice all over your hands. Now though, these need to be stored on shelves in convenience stores, and the rice cannot be allowed to contact the seaweed or the later would lose its crunch, thus requiring the ultimate high tech plastic wrap. So there is an inner plastic sheath separating the two, and one opens with the '1-2-3' labelled pulltabs in order to be able to slide the plastic out from between the rice and seaweed, as well as remove the outer plastic wrap, all at once.

All these technical issues aside, there does appear to be a deeper cultural issue whereby wrapping things leads to an enhancement of their perceived value. But these culturally appropriate wrappings are usually reusable. Like the Furoshiki (風呂敷) I received a little (boxed) memento in when I met with the governor of Tokyo, or the 100 dollar wood bento boxes that dutiful housewives pack their children's school lunches in.

Well the final answer to this Japanese wrapping mystery will have to wait. I have run out of time. I can hear my wife calling me to the other room to help her with the onerous, yet somehow deeply sentimental and rewarding, task of wrapping Christmas presents for the kids to open tomorrow.

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