For me, the biggest obstacle in coming to Japan was not the language, but the food. The language is insurmountable, and I wouldn’t have come at all, had I not known that most of my friends were better versed in Japanese than I. Most of our trips have been by train, and for the duration I am essentially a child, forced to watch the others for any indication that it’s time to disembark. But I don’t mind being helpless in that respect, because I trust my friends not to abandon me. But I do not trust my friends not to feed me eel.
For the first two days, I had very little appetite. We found convenience stores near our residence, and stocked up on Western-looking breakfast items. But we also found a McDonald’s down the road, with a point-and-smile-hopefully menu on the countertop, so we ate there a fair bit, partly out of convenience but partly for some semblance of familiarity. I kept trying to persuade the guys to visit “Coffee Donut San Francisco Chinatown” across the street, but I was only delaying the inevitable: J and Ty were keen to go native.
Fortunately for my gastrointestinal system, our host, Jevon, sits closer to my camp than to J and Ty’s, despite having lived in Japan for 13 years. For our first big supper out, we went to Namba Parks, a sort of curvy, vertical mall with several floors full of restaurants. Jevon chose Kutsikashu, a buffet spot with all-you-can-eat and all-you-can-drink (beer!), but a firm 90-minute cut-off. Each of us could select the food we felt comfortable eating—but mandatory side dishes included bowls of batter and breadcrumbs, because when we got the fish/pork/chicken/beef/veggies/cheese-chunks back to our seats, it was time to skewer them all and drop them into a vat of oil, right in the middle of the table. That’s right; Kutsikashu is a deep-fry-it-yourself joint. We ate heartily and drank to excess.
The next couple of suppers were hastily procured, fast-food affairs, to coincide with our baseball excursions. But we managed to grab a terrific lunch at a ramen noodle shop. I’d had ramen once before, in Toronto, and found the meat too fatty and the broth too salty. Obviously, it was a sub-par shop, because this place delivered a thoroughly satisfying meal. According to Jevon, Japan offers a broad range of regional ramen styles, with varying thickness of noodles, portions of meat, and veggie and broth options. Even T, whose palate is even more finicky than mine, delighted in our ramen experience, and claimed he would never go back to Sopporo Ichiban noodles after this.
Unfortunately, T had a traumatic run-in with the long-dreaded eel a few days later. Underneath department stores in Japan, one usually finds a small deli-style restaurant, designed for commuters to grab take-out on their way home from work. J, Ty, and T were placing a point-and-smile order, and T’s mind wandered at the moment when J said, “This eel looks pretty good, I’m going to try some.” T followed suit, and it took him a few bites before he realized what he’d put in his mouth. Smily, rubbery, and coated in a salty-sweet sauce, T knew he’d bitten off more than he could chew. J later clarified: “It wasn’t very good eel after all. We’ll have to introduce you properly to some of the good stuff later.” T replied, “Much later.”
I knew we couldn’t avoid sushi forever, but I was encouraged to note that there were relatively few dedicated sushi joints in our neighbourhood. I suggested we dine together in a fancy-looking restaurant that showed off bright, plastic replicas of its sushi platters in the front window, along with plenty of other options, including (gasp!) steak. The restaurant did specialize in seafood, and the hostess tried hard to up-sell us on the oysters (“Very very fresh!”) and, of course, the eel. Ty ordered sushi instead, while T and Jevon eagerly went for steak.
J and I weren’t in the mood for seafood, but we were intrigued enough to order shabu-shabu, which involved dropping paper-thin slices of raw beef into boiling water flavoured with vegetables, then dipping it in various sauces. The name, “shabu-shabu,” is apparently onomatopoeic, coming from the sound of the meat as it’s sloshed about in the pot. It was tasty, but the highlight of that meal was actually the side dish of breaded eggplant. Japanese eggplant is sweeter and less smoky than North American, and achieves a terrific balance of flavours when dipped in salt.
During today’s excursion to Nara Park, we stopped at a popular curry house franchise called CoCo Ichibanya. Maybe it was because we were in a touristy area (Nara Park reminded me of Jasper, Alberta), but the menus were almost too accommodating, with so many languages and images that I had to triple-check before I ordered. Their curry sauces rate from 1 to 10, but the “1” or Mildest rating actually has five of its own sub-settings. I lucked out, and got a mostly mild but ever-so-slightly spicy curry and some well-cooked chicken and vegetables. We all had curry-sweats and happy stomachs for the rest of the day.
Despite all my favourable reviews, I’m still not totally at home with Japanese cuisine. Jevon reassures me that it’s mostly possible to avoid seafood if you’re careful, but I would live in fear of a ninja eel attack, like the one that got T. Meanwhile, Japan scores evenly in the two areas that matter to me most: coffee and beer. On the downside, selection is very limited. I’ve only been able to order craft beer once (Yo-Ho’s very tasty witbier called “Suiyoubi No Neko,” or “Wednesday’s Cat”), and otherwise it’s nearly always Asahi, which is like Japanese Coors. On the plus side, automated street vendors will dispense Premium Boss iced coffee and Asahi beer, at any hour, day or night. That’s pretty damn civilized, and it might even be worth the occasional sneaky eel.