Fast food, for most people living in the United States, is stigmatic. It is widely regarded as a sub-par, unhealthy substitute for more nutritious, more appealing fresh foods that individuals might prepare for themselves.
Anyone who has viewed a menu at one of these fast food restaurants has more than likely had the experience of ordering something and then comparing it to the advertisement.
The differences are usually very apparent.
What should be fresh, robust, large and juicy is often squashed, dry, cold and rubbery.
There are places in the world where this is not the case.
There are places where the level of care, attention to detail and overall passion with which food is regarded is such that the final result does in fact match that which is advertised, even in fast food.
Japan, according to Andrew Polenske, is one of those places.
“Food in Japan in general, regardless of what you’re eating, is art to them, no matter where you’re going. If you go to McDonalds, your burger is going to look exactly how it looks in their pictures,” said Polenske. “They take so much care in anything that they do, in any profession. It’s just so different.”
Polenske first travelled to Japan shortly after graduating high school in the summer of 2012 as part of the Kizuna Project.
The word Kizuna translates to “bonds” in English.
“It was this Japanese government-run kind of charity type thing to try and increase tourism,” said Polenske. “The year before they had the really bad earthquake and tsunami and all the stuff with the Fukushima plant and a lot of people got deterred to go to Japan because they were worried that the whole island was radioactive. My parents had the same trepidations about it.”
Those taking part in the Kizuna Project had their trip paid for in full by the Japanese government.
“My dad wanted me to go but my mom was kind of scared at first because she was thinking that the whole place was radioactive. I’m like, ‘mom don’t worry it’s not a big deal. I don’t think Godzilla is going to come out of the ocean anytime soon,’” said Polenske.
Polenske, now a junior in the exercise science program at Idaho State University, studied Japanese all four years of high school.
Polenske spent half of the three week project participating in community service projects and the other half experiencing tourist activities.
After completing his first trip to Japan, Polenske began studying at ISU.
At an involvement fair, he quickly discovered an opportunity to return.
“I ran into [ISU International Recruiter and Study Abroad Coordinator Omar Raudez] and started talking to him. I was looking at all the school options and noticed that Japan was on there but he didn’t really say much about it,” said Polenske.
The school listed, Kansai Gaidai, was located in Hirakata just outside of Osaka. It was one that required students to have advanced Japanese skills, something that Polenske possessed.
Polenske returned to Japan and studied there for the duration of the fall 2013 through spring 2014 school year.
“The program that they have there is a very interesting one. It’s not a typical study abroad experience, at least from what I’ve picked up from other students who have studied abroad through Idaho State,” said Polenske. “They get like 350 students from all around the world into this program and we all have our own dorms and our own classes and everything that we’re in with each other and really don’t get put into classes with Japanese students.”
Students are taught a variety of subjects focusing largely on Japanese language and cultural classes.
One of these classes touched on Japanese warriors from all eras, including the samurai, ninja and more recently, the zero pilots.
The Japanese outlook on the result of World War II is one not of bitterness, but instead, much the same as their outlook on fast food, focused on ideals and taking care to uphold those ideals.
“From what I experienced talking with Japanese people about what happened with World War II and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they don’t hold any disdain for Americans at all for that,” said Polenske. “They want people more so, not so much to hate the fact that it happened, but to learn from it.”
Polenske visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and found that sentiment echoed there as well.
“That is literally the only message they are trying to send with that whole memorial they have set up is we can’t let this happen again,” said Polenske.
One aspect of Japanese society that stood out to Polenske, prompted in part by his study of the Japanese legal system and extremely low crime rate, was the importance of fitting in.
“It’s such a homogenous society. Japan is 99 percent Japanese people and a big part of living as a Japanese person in Japan, or even as a foreigner in Japan, is you want to fit in because if you don’t fit in you’re just not given opportunities, which is also one of the downfalls of the culture,” said Polenske. “People try so hard to stay in the norms of society because peoples’ opinions of you can determine what career you’re going to be in the rest of your life. It’s a very who-you-know and what-you-know society.”
Over the course of his time in Japan, Polenske had many memorable experiences.
One evening after spending time at a club, Polenske and a few friends became lost after a series of train rides and sought help from the only Japanese people that were around.
“The only people we could find were all these guys in suits and it’s like the middle of the night and their suits are all done up so they were Yakuza. I went over and talked to them and they were some of the most polite people that I met that entire time I was there,” said Polenske. “One of the guys, I was talking with him and I was like, ‘could you help us find the station?’ and he put his arm around me and was like ‘yeah, no problem!’ there was a big pause and I think they knew that they were messing with me.”
The Yakuza is an organized crime syndicate, similar in many ways to the American Mafia.
After the man walked Polenske to the correct station, the man did something very uncharacteristic: he shook his hand.
“Japanese people usually don’t shake hands. It’s usually more of a bow,” said Polenske. “The guy who reached out to shake my hand, his sleeve pulled up a little bit and he had a sleeve of tattoos, so you could definitely tell.”
Polenske also visited the surrounding area and spent time playing with tigers in Thailand and visiting the demilitarized zone in South Korea exploring tunnels dug by North Koreans.
Climbing Mount Fuji, the tallest peak in Japan, with the group of friends he became a part of during his first two weeks in Japan is one of Polenske’s fondest memories.
“What we wanted to do was see the sunrise from the top of Mount Fuji. It’s the tallest freestanding mountain in the world and it’s literally just flat like all around it except for the huge two mile high mountain,” said Polenske.
After an eight hour climb, the group huddled together atop the mountain, waiting for the sun.
“We saw the sunrise and it was honestly one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, it was just gorgeous,” said Polenske. “The sun was making the clouds kind of dissipate and when it came up the colors of it were just phenomenal. Being up there with all my friends and everything was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.”