I’ve been studying abroad in Japan for four months, and whenever I try to explain Philadelphia/Judaism/myself to any Japanese person, I never fail to mention bagels. Bagels come up for a lot of reasons. Early in the semester, before most of us were capable of initiating a conversation with a Japanese person of our own accord, we did a lot of structured chatting about cultural foods and foods we like. You don’t find many bagels in Japan (certainly not at a grocery store or bakery), so they’re interesting to Japanese. But more importantly, bagels are a surprisingly essential component of my identity.
For one, they’re emblematic of Ashkenazi Jewish culture, with bagels and bagel culture being truly delicious and widespread only in the densest patch of Ashkenazi Jews in America — a narrow band stretching between Baltimore and New York (Apologies to the Slifka Center at my beloved Yale University. The bagels at its Bagel Brunch are not delicious. I blame Connecticut). In terms of a Flavor Power Rankings, Philadelphia checks in at an undisputed #2 after New York. In America I eat at least four or five bagels a week — with eggs, cheese, bacon, tomato, avocados, cream cheese, butter, turkey, spinach, and anything else. So by bringing up bagels I can explain my hometown, Judaism, and my own lifestyle in one fell swoop. I am grateful to bagels for this convenience.
Alas, when I was explaining bagels to a Japanese friend at Inuyama Castle a few months ago, a nearly apocalyptic thought struck me. How long has it been since I have had a bagel?
I froze as my mind spiraled through the calculations. Could this have been the longest in my life I have gone without eating a bagel? I left America on August 23rd (therefore I likely had a bagel on August 23rd), and that day was October 21st, which runs up to 8.5 weeks. That’s a long-ass time. At that moment I touched my face and stomach, genuinely surprised to find myself still a living, breathing, fully functional human being. I would have expected my body to develop a physical dependency on bagels and accordingly deteriorate upon separation.
Upon further reflection, it turned out to be the second-longest time in my life without bagels (the record is from May 12th to July 24th 2016, a whopping 10 bagel-free weeks, also the fault of my time in Japan), as I took swift action to remedy the crisis. I located the lone bagel store in Nagoya, BAGEL & BAGEL, and went two days later.
I had my fair share of concerns, admittedly biased ones. Considering my own life experience, in which no one outside of that patch between Baltimore and New York seems to know how to make a good bagel, it was thoroughly unlikely that bagels on the opposite side of the world were going to be any good.
Oh, how I was mistaken.
That sesame bagel — not toasted, but soft and dense without being hard or chewy — with cream cheese, smoked salmon, and onion was so delectable and reminiscent of a solid B+ Philadelphia bagel that immediately after inhaling the first I ordered a second (resulting in a stomach-ache that I was not necessarily unhappy about). It turns out you can make a good bagel anywhere, even in Japan.
One moral of the story is that globalization and cultural exchange is one of the most wonderful things in this world. It is lovely that Japanese people can appreciate a steaming fresh onion bagel reeking with garlic-inflected glory. The flip-side is that Japanese know nothing about the storied Polish cultural origins of the bagel as a gift given to women in childbirth, or the bagel boom of 1850s London, or the historically essential bagel brunch, popular in New York City since 1900. In a way, having bagels way out here in Japan obscures the cultural origins by presenting bagels as a mere commodity. Still, I challenge you to find a single soul with legitimate complaints about the presence of bagels in a Nagoya department store’s luxury foods section. For those bagels are delicious, and to me, smell like home.