Japan Japan Japan memoirs of my travels
Sorry, I have to do this one, and apologies now to my Japanese family. But I have the very good fortune to be off to Japan next week for client meetings. Amazingly I get to meet my father and mother-in-law, but also my niece who happens to be traveling with her friend at the same time – what makes that amazing is that Katelynn lives in New York. Indeed a very small world kicking in. I hope you enjoy reading Japan Japan Japan memoirs of The Semi-Naked Chef.
Loads of these cool restaurants and bars are on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th floors and beyond – so without a translator would be virtually impossible to find them as they are not in your line of sight at street level. But they are there and you should try to find them. Affordable, usually offering up amazing food, and refreshments of course. Clearly, for me there are fewer grey hairs and fewer pounds – mind you though check that date, it’s nearly 16 years ago.
Have you read Mr. Anthony Bourdain’s book, “A Cook’s Tour“? You must read this as it is a tour of the world of when Tony was working for Food Channel – he goes to Cambodia, Vietnam, the UK, Russia in fact you name the country and he goes there – in this book, he also visits the wonderful Japan.
I have personally, like he, had amazing food experiences in and out of Japan with Japanese food, some of which you would have seen my review already on the blog. But for once I am going to share some bad experiences, experiences it seems in perfect harmony with Mr Bourdain – it seems we are kindred on Japan Japan Japan memoirs of The Semi-Naked Chef.
To give the context I have to now add his words from the book.
I really hope you’ll laugh. I hope Tony Bourdain is groovy, up in heaven, with me copying his work here.
He is basically in Japan and decides to visit a spa near to Fuji-san (Mount Fuji), and this is so relevant to me as I did EXACTLY this with Naoko, Yuko, and Mizuyo – my wife, father and mother-in-law. More of that trip later but firstly Mr Bourdain will set the scene.
“Dinner at the ryokan (A ryokan is a type of traditional Japanese inn that originated in the Edo period (1603-1868), when such inns served travelers along Japan’s highways. They typically feature tatami-matted rooms, communal baths, and other public areas where visitors may wear yakuta and talk with the owner) may have been the greatest thing ever. Breakfast was another thing entirely. At about 08:00 am, the screen slid back and an attendant removed the futon. A few minutes later, I found myself, once again, sitting cross-legged at a low table, with a full spectrum of beautiful dishes coming my way. I was not ready, that early morning, for a large and challenging meal. I was not ready for Mr Komatsu again, dressed, as always, in his stiff black manager’s outfit, kneeling a few yards away whilst I ate.
I was OK with the smoked fish, which was very good – the sushi, the rice. What I was not ready for, and never will be, was natto, an unbelievably foul, rank, slimy, glutenous, and stringy goop of fermented soybeans. It’s the Vegemite of Japan, dearly loved by everyone there, for reasons no outsider can understand. There are two kinds of natto for me that morning: the traditional soy variety, and an even scarier black bean natto. If the taste wasn’t bad enough, there’s the texture. There’s just no way to eat the stuff. I dug in my chopsticks and dragged a small bit into my mouth.
Viscous long strands of mucus-like material followed, leaving numerous ugly and unmanageable strands running from my lips to the bowl. I tried severing the strands with my chopsticks but to no avail. I tried rolling them around my sticks like recalcitrant angel-hair pasta. I tried slurping them in. But there was no way. I sat there, these horrible-looking strings extending from mouth to table like a spider’s web, doing my best to choke them down, while still smiling for the attentive Mr Komatsu. All I wanted to do now was hurl myself through the paper walls and straight off the edge of the mountain. Hopefully, a big tub of boiling bleach or lye would be waiting at the bottom for me to gargle with.
Waiting in the wings, right behind the natto, was another concoction, described as ‘mountain potato’. Of this, I could handle only a single taste. To this day, I have no idea what it really was. It didn’t taste like a potato – and I can’t imagine anything on a mountain tasting so evil. I didn’t ask, frightened that my host might mistake my inquiry for enthusiasm and offer up another generous helping. The small, dark, chewy nugget can only be described as tasting like salt-cured, sun-dried, goat rectum – unbelievably, woefully flavourful – garnished by small maggotlike, wriggly things, so awful to my Western palate that I was forced, through the grim rictus of a smile, to ask politely that Mr Komatsu ‘leave me alone for a while so I can fully appreciate this fine breakfast in solitude’. I had no choice, I thought I would die.
Nothing, not bugs, not iguana, not live reptile parts, not tree grubs, nothing I’d ever eaten would approach the horror of these few not-unusual Japanese breakfast items. I’m not sneering. I’m sure that natto and mountain rectum are, as they say, ‘acquired tastes’. And I am sure that over time I could learn to appreciate them. If I were incarcerated and natto was the only food provided. But for right now? Given a choice between eating natto and digging up my old dog Pucci (dead thirty-five years) and making rillettes of him? Sorry, Pucci.
So now to my bit, thanks Tony, very very funny reading. My wife, Nina, LOVED natto, one of her absolute favourite things – stinky beans was what I used to call it. You’d walk in the house, condo, flat, and bang the smell hits you, and you’re like, oh no, stinky beans. And yes exactly the same as Tony’s experience above the taste and consistency are indeed ‘acquired’, and certainly not a special on this Westerner’s death row cuisine.
When we were visiting Japan once, Yuko and Mizuyo thought it would be a good idea to take a trip to the spa region below Fuji-san – yes very similar to Mr Bourdain. At the sea‘s edge are loads of ryokans, the spas described by Tony above. For those who remember Mr Ben – well it’s like being in Mr Ben, you walk to the door as a Westerner, cross the threshold, and boom you’re 100% immersed in to Japanese. I absolutely dig all this and love the experience, off with the Western clothes, on with kimono, sandals, socks with two toes, bowing continually, sleeping on a futon on the tatami floors, food in the same rooms, communal bathing, no tattoos allowed (more on that in a short while), amazing and ‘varied’ foods (more on that in a minute), volcanos, eggs, farts, etc.
An amazing experience for me, my first true taste of non-tourist activity in one of the best countries in the world.
When we arrived you could not see Fuji-san due to a low cloud covering. But on day number two, man oh man in all his glory the volcano shone through. It’s on such a flat plain, which runs all the way to the sea, so it stands out so prominently. Quite amazing and a simply breathtaking sight.On day number one it announced that we should have a spa bath. Little did I know that sometimes these are mixed, and yes completely starkers.
So sorry to say Miz but I did make excuses and told a wee white lie so that I could go alone. I love you, but, you see me in the nude and vice versa was not an option. So I took advice on the etiquette of spa bathing from Yuko. Enter the facility, find the ‘milking stool’, sit down naked, and shower thoroughly, including a sponge that literally does take off your skin, then rinse off and enter the spa bath. This spa bath that is fed from the volcanic waters is like +100 degrees, so again off with another layer of skin.
It’s so hot, but you have to look cool and look like you know what you are doing, so ignore the pain. I entered and said hello in Japanese to the other gentlemen in there, they all politely replied and then all got up and left the place. Was it because I was white, were they embarrassed with size comparisons (haha), or could it be my tattoos? Traditionally tattoos are frowned upon in Japan as only the Yakuza (mafia) would adorn these as part of the acceptance of the brotherhood.
In fact, on certain spas in the city, you see signs stating no tattoos allowed, in effect what they are saying is no Yakuza. Whatever the reason, there I was then enjoying my skin melting off my body all alone, looking out over beautiful scenery, in the season that is cherry blossom time (end March/beginning April – exactly when I am going this time). Just a beautiful season in Japan, not too hot, not cold, and just breathtaking with the cherry blossoms falling like snow all over the city and countryside alike.
The food was incredible. We ate together in one of the rooms, with the futon removed. Served by a lady in traditional garb, very beautiful in looks and gestures. The culture in Japan never ceases to amaze me, it’s so respectful and so beautiful, and gentle. In Japanese she was asking Nina, Yuko, and Mizuyo;
‘Will he will be OK with the food?’
‘What the the white guy, yeah he will be OK.’
As you know by now I am pretty adventurous when it comes to food. I preach – don’t eat with your eyes, at least try and explore different tastes. The food came and came and came, almost tapas in style, with a big enough size to savour the flavour, but a small enough size to enable you to eat and eat. I remember beautiful sushi and sashimi, scallops cooked in the shell on little burners with a soy/vinegar/chive sauce just amazing (I surprised myself), but one dish that will never be done again.
Whole baby octopus, about the size of a new potato. In they go and the first chew they go pop and all the brains, stomach and the like explodes in your mouth. Oh my goodness, that one I did not like. A major fish taste, not sort of pleasant salty/briny taste, but FISH. Not good – quickly guzzle some beer to help it get swallowed and to take the taste away! Any excuse for a beer I hear you say.
We also had sashimi on the bone as it were. A fish gets scooped from a tank and is then systematically sliced into bite-sized pieces of sashimi without actually severing the backbone which would obviously kill it. So yes it is being cut up whilst still alive, and then it gets served immediately to show it is the freshest of the fresh. While you are eating its body, it is still alive. Here is the epitome of not eating with your eyes, as the fish is literally twitching and jerking on this crescent-shaped serving dish in its last death throws. But I have to say what an amazing sashimi – you cannot get fresher than that.
One day up the volcano for a, do not eat with your nose food experience. The slopes of the mountain are literally smoking, oozing out steam arising from deep inside the volcano. A beautiful sight, almost moon landscape-like, with those flat plains surrounding all the way down to the sea in the distance. So picturesque. But the smell, OMG the smell.
These sulfur clouds from the volcano smell like the very worst rotten eggs you have ever smelled. So then when they offer you a boiled egg that has been cooked in the hot volcanic soil, an egg that is black, with the surrounding smell – it is challenging shall we say. But the smell and looks aside, it actually was one of the very best boiled eggs of all time. Little sachets of salt on hand to season the egg, a completely different taste than normal. Well, it is cooked in a volcano after all.
It was an amazing trip thanks to Nako, Yuko, and Mizuyo – clearly one I had not forgotten and never will forget. A trip that was some time ago now, with much change in between. I hope to take the kids one day as Amy has never seen her second home, and Mary and Jude have never been either.
Maybe I just won’t force the baby octopus on them.