My computer says that it’s 8:19AM on Monday, a fact which I’m trying to accept at face value. In truth, my jetlag seems to be dissipating. I’m still waking up about two hours earlier than usual but I no longer feel nearly as temporally dislocated as I did two days ago.
While staring at the ceiling at about 5:00AM today I thought about things that happened in Japan that I haven’t yet covered in this blog but bear recounting. I realized that several of them have to do with food, so I’m going to lump them together in this post.
The first such event was dinner with Rafael and Richard on our first full day in Tokyo. We had shabu-shabu, which is what Japanese parents tell their children when they’re cautioning them to not burn themselves on a hot stove. Yes, I just made that up; I have no idea what shabu-shabu translates to, if anything. It involves an open pot of boiling water with a central pillar, sort of like a Bundt pan, in which you–as in you the diner–cook paper-thin slices of Japan’s famous marbled beef, vegetables, mushrooms, etc. We were waited upon by a woman in a green kimono who amazed us with her skill in keeping her kimono sleeves out of the platters of food, the boiling water, the tea cups, etc. as she reached across the table to put things down, pick things up, and demonstrate shabu-shabu technique. We had a delightful time. I didn’t have my camera with me but Richard took a few pictures. This is the appetizer. Rafael almost managed to trick Richard (and me, inadvertently) into eating the flower:
Here’s the main course:
(Now I’m trying to remember whether it’s shabu-shabu that is portrayed in “Lost in Translation”. I think that meal was cooked in hot oil rather than hot water, which means it was something else that was described to me but whose name I don’t recall.)
The next day the four of us had lunch at a sushi restaurant. I’m not exactly sure whether I understood what was said about the place, but I believe that it’s known in part for making food look like flowers. Or maybe its name has “rose” in it, or maybe I’m not remembering any of this correctly. In any case, I do know that one of the courses, shown below, involved a rose made out of raw squid. I couldn’t tell you what most of the rest of it was; even Rafael didn’t recognize all of it. I do know, though, that it was all very tasty.
Yes, in that last photo I’m contemplating the fact that I’m about to eat a piece of raw squid made to look like a rose. Actually I should state for the record that despite what most Americans would probably expect, raw squid has a nice, mild flavor and isn’t terribly chewy. I had it several times and rather like it.
The next day, our day with Tamae-san, we had lunch at a small restaurant near Tokyo Tower. Here’s what I had:
That’s a couple of pieces of tempura on skewers in the center (shrimp and some other sort of fish, if I remember correctly), some pickled things and a bit of octopus to the right, tuna and sea bream at the top, miso soup and rice at the lower right and left respectively, and some other pickled stuff at the lower center. It was all very good. I was asked several times by locals whether I liked Japanese food, and the answer is obviously yes. (Of course there are exceptions, but then I don’t like all American food either.)
(That photo reminds me that I haven’t posted any photos at all from some of the early days of our trip. Bear with me; I’ll get to them eventually.)
The last food-related event I’ve been meaning to describe was dinner with our guide Sid and his wife. Sid had invited us before our arrival in Japan to dine with him and his wife after our touring; we were, of course, honored to meet his wife and dine with them. We ate at a Japanese restaurant in Kyoto Station. We had a marvelous multi-course dinner, an almost endless stream of sushi, sashimi, tempura, mini shabu-shabu pots per person, and so on. Part of the meal was served in a cute little black lacquered wooden box with a drawer, one per person. We were waited upon with remarkable attentativeness and grace by a very cheerful young woman in a pink kimono.
I was a little self-conscious during parts of the meal because I was doing my best to be well-mannered in the presence of two Japanese people who are probably as old as my parents, and I wasn’t sure of the proper way to eat some of the things we were served. I was trying to fall back on the default basic rule of ettiqutte–do what your host/hostess does–but I couldn’t actually see what Mr. and Mrs. Makino were doing much of the time because my view was blocked by the cute little boxes. I was particularly concerned about how to approach a whole shrimp with chopsticks, but fortunately remembered reading somewhere (hopefully an authoritative source) that it’s acceptable to take one chopstick in each hand when necessary. I did that to remove the shell from the tail of the shrimp, then picked it up with chopsticks held in the usual manner and bit the tail off. Some time later I observed that Sid simply pulled his apart and ate it by hand, and Mrs. Makino apparently doesn’t care for shrimp at all. Live and learn.
Anyway, it was an excellent meal with excellent company. Sid’s wife is really a dear and was very enthusiastic about practicing her (already rather good) English conversational skills. Before we began eating one of those most moving moments of the entire vacation occurred. Mrs. Makino gave Tracie one of her kimonos and an accompanying outer coat. She explained that the kimono was a wedding gift from her mother but that she had worn it only once. Tracie was moved almost to tears by this gesture. (It’s beautiful; it’s white with patterns of maple leaves and other natural motifs.)
Unfortunately I have no photos at all of that meal. I didn’t even think to take the camera with me. Sid and the waitress took a couple of photos; perhaps I can get copies from him.
There were a couple of other minor food events worth mention. Vie de France, the oddly Japanese rendition of a French pastry shop, still has Special Curry Donuts although they’ve dropped the “Special” from the name. They’re still special to me, however; I had several while we were in Kyoto. They also had a mysterious “Soft Cookie (Black)” which I didn’t try. Yeah, I’ll eat rose-shaped squid but not black cookies; there are limits to my curiosity. There are also numerous mysterious-looking confections in shops which I haven’t tried; I think most of them involve bean paste.
Rafael was able to illuminate one mystery from our previous visit. Last year we observed several shops selling odd-looking blocks of some waxy-looking, dingy-yellow-colored substance. I couldn’t see spending money to find out what it was, but it did seem to be popular with the locals. I pointed it out when we walked through the Asakusa shopping area with Richard and Rafael; Rafael took it upon himself to buy some so that we could all try it. He said that it’s sweet potato, which I certainly would not have guessed from its appearance.
It tasted like sweet potato, though, for better or for worse. I wasn’t wild about it. The shiny ball-shaped things are also sweet potato, flavored with various things and covered with a distinctly rubbery coating. I wasn’t wild about those either.
“shabu shabu” is the Japanese way of describing the “swish swish” motion – or so I’ve been told a few times.