Better Than the Real Thing: Eating in Japan

One year for New Year’s, we went to a Japanese place in Bethlehem, called Kome. We had been there a few times before, and thought the hibachi would be just the thing for the family. Rachel and Derek came, Laura’s aunt and uncle and her cousin, and we couldn’t have made a better choice. We sat around the grill, watched the chef prepare the food, send random streams of sake in our directions, do the onion volcano, all the things that we come to know and love from this type of experience. We all had a great time and had good food.

If you were to have asked me then, on that night, if that was what eating in Japan was like, I would have said, “No, probably not.” And I would have been right. And wrong.

Again, not that I’m suddenly an expert on Japanese food. It’s just that now I have an idea of what Japanese food can be. For instance, one of our first outings was to the Ramen Museum, north of Yokohama, which Hannah chose specifically because a) it’s interesting to look at, b) because they have several different ramen vendors there, and c) because a couple of vendors have gluten-free ramen, which allowed her and Laura to indulge.

The Ramen Museum has an elaborate set-up to look like a stylized version of a 1950’s Japanese street, complete with movie advertisements and signage. Each one of the storefronts is a ramen restaurant.

Ramen Museum

Ramen. Most of us know it as that thing that kept us from starving in college. My mother was one of the first to get addicted to instant ramen when they made their way west, so we would always have a few packets on hand, although I could take or leave them, honestly. If you were to ask me then if that’s what eating ramen in Japan was like, I’d say probably not. And I’d have been right. And right again.

And wrong, possibly, since those same ramen packets exist in Japan as well. I suppose it’s the difference between Steak-Umm and an actual Philly cheesesteak. You don’t always have time for the real thing.

Real Deal Ramen

Oh, but you should make time.

Ramen shops are no-nonsense affairs. You punch in what you want into a machine, you sit down, they bring it to you. Slurp, slurp, slurp and you’re out of there. In between, though, there is broth that no packet can recreate, pork, eggs, green onion. Noodles of varying size, depending on the place. At this shop, the thicker noodle was more to their liking, and to mine.

Gluten Free RamenAnd to Laura.

Dan and Derek's Ramen AdventureAnd to these guys.

To be honest, it was confusing, and eye-opening. I knew ramen, the real ramen, was much better, and different, but this so outclassed those packets designed to stave off collegiate starvation, it defied logic.

But some similarities remained, despite how different the taste quality: ramen is still treated as the ultimate utilitarian food. Get in, fill up, get out, all good. Wasn’t there supposed to be some kind of interaction, some talk around the table, just like we had at Kome back home while fire rises out of onions on a grill? Of course not, because that’s how ramen is. But instead of a cramped and crowded dorm room, it’s a cramped and crowded shop.

That’s when it became obvious: the Japanese food we know is just a rumor of the real thing. An echo. Not necessarily untrue, but incomplete. The picture is not fully developed.

Try, taste

First of all, the ingredients. Hannah took us to Tsukiji Market, possibly the foremost fish markets in the entire world. Everything is fresh, everything is amazing, and so much is unique. We got some dried scallops from a vendor here. These scallops could probably be replicated in, say, Florida, but they would come out all different.

Dried scallops

We ate lunch at Sushizanmai, which has a very good reputation. I’m not a sushi guy. I can eat it, and I won’t outright refuse to eat it, but given other options, I will generally eat something else. Laura would eat sushi for every meal until she grew gills. My expectations weren’t terrifically high, but I expected better than the average California roll.

Sushizanmai

We ordered—well, Hannah ordered—and they came back with a platter of their finest. Here’s my first look at actual Japanese sushi:

Real Deal SushiThat would be different. I’ll have some of that, thank you.

The shocker for me was this: the quality of the fish was much better, take that for granted, but the quality of the rice was what set it apart. Rice, at its worst, is mushy and tasteless. This was firm, flavorful, and the perfect complement to the fish. Again, it wasn’t startling to find that it was better, but that it was so much better.

And here, we could talk, we could laugh, we could enjoy ourselves, much as we might as if we were eating sushi back home. There was a family seated next to us, and just like we had seen on the riverbank a few days earlier, the mother of the family was trying to take a picture. I wandered over and offered to take it for them, so they could all be in the shot. And once that was done, she offered to take a picture of us.

The reaction you see, especially out of me, is the result of her saying, just before she snapped this, “Say cheese!”

Say Cheese

However, when it comes to the difference in American ingredients used in Japanese cooking and Japanese ingredients, there is no greater gap than in the quality of beef. We’ve all heard that Japanese beef is better, but we really don’t want to believe it, considering we produce and eat more beef than we know what to do with. Wagyu beef, blah blah blah, cows getting massages and their hooves done, whatevs.

No, no, you don’t understand. Their run-of-the-mill beef is probably better than our best.

One night, after the evening’s festivities (which will be detailed in a future post) we finally ended up in a Yakuniku place. It was down this marvelous little street that barely seemed large enough for a scooter, much less a car. The entire menu was in Kanji, no English translation for the American tourists. Hannah got her phone out and did Google Translate on it. We determined that we would order meat to put on our grill. Much meat. Lovely happy beefy meat.

YakunikuAnd before you ask, yes, that it is a carrot in the shape of a cow.

On the grillOn the grill it went, and after that, we filled up our happy faces with it. This was my first taste of real, honest-to-goodness Japanese beef in all its splendor, and as it floated downward to my bottomless steak repository, I wondered what American cows were doing wrong. They clearly don’t want to be this delicious. Sure, it’s hard work, but the Japanese cow is up for the task.

The first order was not enough, so we pointed at the menu and said onegaishimasu, and magically, more beef arrived. This was different beef, because we had pointed at some other part of the menu. Tastier, perhaps? It was tough to tell, having slipped into a beef trance.

After it was over, we slipped into the night. Sadder? By no means. Wiser? By leaps and bounds. We had fully known beef and all its ways.

Or maybe not.

The last night, Hannah and Dan wanted to take us to the Imperial Hotel. There, we would have the Japanese steakhouse experience, only this time, for realsies. No onion volcanoes here, my friend. (I realize I’m channeling my inner Bourdain here, but stick with me).

They seat us in the familiar setting: table on three sides, and in the center, a scalding-hot slab of steel. Behind us, other people are seated around a similar slab of steel. Their food is being prepared already. The chef is serious. He’s not going to send a shrimp as an airborne missile toward some patron’s face, not this guy. All business.

Our Chef

Our chef shows up, a younger man. His name is Watabe. My guess is they chose him for the American tourists because they are used to a little personality with their meal on such occasions. He’s got a gleam in his eye like he’s been practicing some knife flips, but he’s not going to do them here. He has to be all business.

Out the window, there’s the light of an office building. One light in one square, with the silhouette of one man behind a desk. It’s after 7:30.

Your Meat for This Evening

This is what the beef looked like before it went on the grill. And this…

Steak, The Reckoning…is what it looked like after. A marvelous thing, prepared expertly. The time it takes to do what Watabe does is truly amazing.

Our Genial Hosts

We ate and enjoyed ourselves, while the man in the office building continued to work within the confines of his lit square. It was 9:00, 9:30, and he was still there. I tried to take a picture of this, but I only had my phone, and the reflection in the window would not allow it. Finally, when we got up to leave, we noticed the one light in the building was now out. The man in the office had worked until 10.

Tipping is not a tradition in Japan, and in fact, Hannah told us it’s frowned upon. The reason is this: if you tip someone, you are looking down on someone else’s work. But it works both ways. That night at the Imperial Hotel, everyone, and I mean everyone, treated us as if we were royalty, and they weren’t fishing for tips. They worked hard. They had pride in their work, and you could see that.

Just like the man working in the building. Just like the farmer that produced the beef, just like the man who caught the fish we had at Tsukiji Market. They all share that same intense pride. And when there is so much work that goes in to not only the preparation of the food, but the preparation of the preparation of the food, it cannot help but be great.

Sashimi

We all had a good laugh when those Ruby Roman grapes went for $11,000 at auction in Japan last year. They’re just grapes, after all, we think. I can get a bunch at the grocery store for 4 bucks. But that’s just it, it’s more than that. Someone put obsessive effort into producing those grapes, to ensure that they were the highest quality, best-tasting, knock-your-brains-out good grapes. It’s not just food, it’s a work of art. In that context, spending five figures on fruit makes sense.

We thank everyone who fed us while we were there in Tokyo. Thank you doesn’t even cover it. Nor does arigato gozaimasu, but it will have to do.

ありがとう ございます

The Life of a Tourist

At the path along the river, despite the gloomy day, everything opened up. It was our first full day in Japan. It may have had something to do with the sake tasting we had just left, but already the world was different.

Picnic

It would be a few days before we would do the truly touristy things like going up in the Tokyo Skytree or seeing the pandas at the Ueno Zoo. In this spot along the river, as it had been at the Sawanoi Saké Brewery we had just visited, there were no other tourists. Just us. Everyone else grew up here, lived here, belonged here. That sudden realization was the moment when tourism ended. We were all part of the same picture.

And then again, maybe it was the saké.

Sake!


Bear in mind that I don’t want to be one of those people who, having been touched by international travel, thinks of himself as Rick Steves or Anthony Bourdain. I know nothing. It became more evident as our time in Japan wore on that I know less that nothing. In part, at least as far as Japan was concerned, this was by design. I wanted to be genuinely surprised by what I was seeing.

The first days of our stay were going to be at Yokota AFB, and the last three days were set for an Airbnb in Arakawa-ku. Hannah and Dan were driving us around in a rental van while we were on base, because Hannah’s Diahatsu is built for a maximum capacity of one and one-half humans.

The first few days weren’t ideal as far as the weather was concerned. We caught a glimpse of Mount Fuji on our way back from the airport, but the clouds and haze hid it from our sight for the next couple of days. It rained on our way to see the Great Buddha in Kamakura, it rained while we were there, and it rained on the way back, but not enough to keep us from going.

At the Buddha

On the first clear morning, Hannah was driving when she spotted Fuji out of the corner of her eye. Without telling us what she was seeing, she twisted the rental van off to a side street, tossing us to and fro in the back of the vehicle. “What…?”

“Fuji,” she explained.

Fuji

And so, Fuji it was. This would be the clearest it would be during our time there. But as nice as these moments were, the defining moment had already taken place.


Sawanoi Brewery

I may have taken close to 400 pictures that first day at the Sawanoi Sake Brewery. It was impossible not to. We sat through the presentation and the tour, which was entirely in Japanese, quiet and bright-eyed, nodding our heads as if we understood. Some things needed no words.

There was a helpful flyer in decent English to let us know a good bit of what was going on. We went to the room where the rice was processed and to the cave where they gathered the water. Everyone was Japanese, apart from the six goofy Americans. It was hard not to feel so different, so out of place.

After the tour was over, we retired to the solace of our own company. I took 200 more pictures to mask the fact that I felt so self-conscious that I wasn’t Japanese. There was a shrine across the river from the brewery, and a walking bridge to get to it, so we made our way over there. I took 400 more pictures.

Take us to the bridge


On our way

Hannah, chef that she is, had a tour of Kappabashi Street planned for us on our first official day in Tokyo. Kappabashi is a street entirely dedicated to the restaurant trade. We took the train in. Tokyo has a terrific public transportation system, and we saw pretty much every last bit of it. It had been years since I had been on a train, and I had forgotten how hard it is to keep your balance. I held on to the ring for dear life. More experienced Tokyo natives stood around, lightly holding their rings with one hand while perusing their smartphones with the other, barely swaying in the tumult. It took four days for me to master this art.

On the train

At the end of the line was Tokyo Station, a grand relic of another era. More reproduction than relic, as the original version had been destroyed in the war. It was raining. Raining again.

Tokyo StationHannah was relying on Google Maps to get us around. Normally, Google Maps are very reliable, but in Tokyo, walking directions can change at a moment’s notice. We stumbled out into the rain after Hannah, who went one way, and then another, and then yet another, and then stopped. She would look at her phone, then look up, and then back at her phone again, and then she went back the first way, and we followed her. We must have looked like we were terrible at collecting Pokemon.

All this in the rain. We ended up breaking for lunch until Google Maps gathered itself.

Following Hannah

After lunch, we followed Hannah down a small street, as directed by Google Maps. At the end, we found ourselves right in the middle of Kappabashi. The rain continued.

Kappabashi in the rainFortunately, the sidewalks were (mostly) covered, so we could somewhat dry out. The stores varied, from the superior-serious big-ticket items to uniforms to the items that were probably geared more for the tourists. There were more western faces here. Some Americans. Australians. French.

Not Creepy
Not creepy…not creepy…not creepy…

Even though we were popping into shops in relative dryness, we were discovering just how water-logged we had been. Our backpacks weighed about twice what they normally would have.

Chef

We landed in a coffee shop along the way. Most often, wherever we went, we saw signs in Japanese, followed by an English translation. In the coffee shop, everything was in English. After four days in Japan, the lack of Kanji was jarring.


Cherry blossomsThe cherry blossoms were in full bloom in Ome as we climbed the steps to the shrine across from the Sawanoi Brewery. The rain was holding off that day, but there was a layer of fog at the edge of the tall hills on either side of the river. All six of us could stay in our comfort zone as long as we kept moving. I took another 300 pictures.

Shrine Selfie

After that, we walked along the river. On this trail, the river was at our left and the back of peoples’ houses were to the right. At one point, we came across a small restaurant. There was outdoor seating, and although it wasn’t the best day for dining al fresco, it was time to eat. Hannah and Dan asked us if we wanted to stay here.

We kind of avoided the question. Up until then, we had never been to a restaurant in Japan, and the prospect of pointing at a menu didn’t seem particularly appealing. But there were a few people underneath the canopy near us, and one Japanese man called out to us in English, and told us to come inside.

I wish we had. But we drifted away from the restaurant and continued down the trail.


We were depending on Google Maps to find our Airbnb. Generally, this worked, in the fact that we ended up generally in the location. We followed Hannah to one apartment building, which turned out to not be it. Then Google Maps told us to cross the street, which we did. It wasn’t there, either. So we crossed again, and this time we found it. It rained the entire time, and we found no Pokemon.

We got inside, our bags arrived shortly thereafter, and we got changed out of our wet clothes. The forecast for that night said that the rain would stop. As we left the apartment in search of food, we discovered this was a lie. The rain mostly stopped. The wind picked up.

Hannah was in the mood for yakiniku. In yakiniku restaurants, they bring meat to your table and you grill it yourself on a grill built into the table. We followed Hannah into the darkness and wind. Google Maps sent us past a McDonald’s and into a parking garage. Whereas it was drier and less windy in there, there was a complete lack of grilled meat, and therefore, less than satisfactory. Once we emerged, we passed the McDonald’s again, found the place we were looking for, and discovered they were booked solid.

Following Hannah

We shuffled off into the night. All of us spotted that McDonald’s once again. It was calling to us. You’ll do no better.

This was a lie, and we all knew it. We pressed on, through the drizzle and wind, and around the corner and up a flight of stairs, there was a restaurant. They had a place to take off our wet shoes and put them in a locker. The restaurant itself loomed in the back, and just from the look of it, it looked expensive.

They seated us in a dark, private room. As it turns out, they were all private rooms. We sat on the floor on cushions in front of a low table. Saké arrived. I opened the menu with impending dread, but the prices were quite reasonable.

Rachel and Derek

Sashimi

They brought us sashimi, yakitori, and many other things that were so, so good. In the other private rooms, people chatted in Japanese and laughed. I grabbed a piece of salmon, looked at this room full of my family and thought, I could get used to this.

Cheers!

That was the second moment. The moment where I felt like I could get along anywhere, as long as I kept pressing on.


The first moment came as we walked along the river, feeling like a bit of a coward for not speaking up and saying, “Hey, you know what? Maybe we should eat at that restaurant along the trail. After all, when are we going to get back?”

I took 600 more pictures. Cherry blossoms, mostly, and a few people having picnic lunches in the dry spots of the river.

River

There was a trail down to water’s edge, and I followed it. Laura followed me. A family was having a picnic down there, and I could see that the mother of the clan was having difficulty taking a selfie with the whole family in it. She saw me, she saw the camera, put two and two together, and called me over. I seem to be the one stranger in the crowd that people choose for this particular service, so I know the drill. I smiled and took her phone, and got a good shot of them all.

But we’re not done. She wanted a picture of me with the family. Then me and Laura with the family. Then I took one with Laura and them.

Hanami

And just like that, we belonged. We were part of this wonderful country and it was a part of us. Everyone was part of the same picture.

Then again, maybe it was the saké.

Us with the Family