Anyone who spends any length of time in Japan is eventually asked these questions:
- Do you drink cow piss?
- Do you like cow piss?
- Would you like some of my cow piss?
To live in Japan means you are constantly developing an easy going personality, which in turn leads to what I like to call: “Culinary suspension of disbelief.” A skill that lets you eat things that you did not know were from this planet yet, still keep your integrity. This way, you do not dishonor coworkers, friends, and ladies that you are trying to impress.
But cow piss?
And you thought using chopsticks was going to be the culture shock.
For educational purposes I have recreated the entire awkward cow piss conversation. The dialogue between you and the friendly Japanese person who introduced you to it goes as follows:
Do you drink cow piss?
You pause, squint, and raise one eyebrow.
“I’m sorry, did you say cow piss?”
You repeat the words slowly and accurately, so as to eliminate the doubt.
“Yes. Cow piss. You know it?”
Japanese person says with perfect pronunciation.
“Well, yes… I mean no… I mean yes I know of it… but no I’m pretty sure I…”
You are confused, flustered, speechless.
“Just so we understand each other, what is cow piss?”
“It’s a drink!”
“Hmm.. yes. But… is it? is it really?”
So far you have clarified nothing, but you can see the makings of a good two-man comedy bit.
They reach into their bag and pull out a clear plastic bottle with a milky liquid inside it. You point at the bottle, and with total confidence say,
“Oh… milk! Haha, I get it, cow piss, milk, very funny… kind of gross, but very funny.”
So with a strange unsatisfied relief, you sum up,
“So you guys call milk, cow piss.”
“No. Milk is called gyu-nu… This is cow piss.”
they say with a confused glance.
They unscrew the bottle and offer it to you. You don’t get the satisfaction of watching them take a big swig of the cow piss first. At least you would then know that this is not some kind of set up. But alas, the other thing you learn from being in Japan for a while is that they always think of the other person first. Damn them with their courtesy and respectfulness.
You examine the cow piss.
You think to yourself, as you take the bottle and raise it for a closer look, Its not yellow but its not white either. Unless you’ve actually seen a cow urinate before, the visual inspection doesn’t really give you much confidence. You start to slowly tip the bottle and take the drink of faith. You prepare for taste bud shock only to be pleasantly surprised by a cool, sweet refreshing taste with a slight yogurt like tang.
You look at your Japanese friend and say the only thing you could say,
“This is the best cow piss I’ve every had!”
Everyone has their own version of the cow piss story. Cow piss is actually a drink called Calpis (カルピス). It’s a combo of water, dried non fat milk and lactic acid. It has been a healthy and popular beverage in Japan for almost 100 years.
Nihongo Language Note:
Calpis is the victim of a Japanese pronunciation perfect storm:
Which in this case is the “ah” sound followed by the ole “L/R” problem which is then forced to an abrupt end from the “P” sound.
Most English speakers see the word “Calpis” and assume the first syllable is pronounced as the “cal” in “California”. But this “a” sound does not exist in Japanese. There is only one way to pronounce the letter “a” in Japanese and that is “ahh”. There is no cat or bat or apple. only “ah”.
Then you get hit with the classic Japanese “L” and “R” problem. Which in Japanese is mushed together to make a unique hybrid sound where you are saying both at the same time. The “L/R” sound is not so bad if you give it some time to roll off your tongue, as in ball or poll.
But here is the final blow after the one-two punch from above. The “P” sound forces a quick mouth closing and allows no room for error. The Japanese are not familiar with combining consonant sounds without vowels. Thus forcing their marble filled mouth to make the “L/R” sound like an “ow”, as in cow. So at full speed the pronunciation of Calpis comes out sounding like “cow piss.” And I mean exactly like “cow piss”
Also, strangely enough, there is no letter “C” in the Japanese alphabet. This is the first sign that this is probably a foreign word. in fact, Calpis is the combination of 2 foreign words; calcium and sarpis (butter flavor). Combining 2 foreign words into one confusing Japanese word is a very popular thing to do in Japan. Like “perso-con” for personal computer, and marbalu-do for marble tofu.
This could also be added to other unfriendly English named, Japanese food products like, Pocari Sweat (a sports drink) and Mos Burger (a fast food chain).