Even before I get to around to describing the race, I have to rescind my former statement regarding my dislike of Japanese food.
The first time I was in Japan, I was almost totally unsupervised in my food choices. This should never happen in some cultures. Left to one’s own devices, one is reduced to looking at pictures or plastic models of various dishes, pointing out one’s choice to the restaurant staff and enduring whatever has been served to one.
This time, because of the hospitality of our hosts in Tateyama and the guidance of my friends in Tokyo, I was advised and carefully monitored with regard to my every meal. Big surprise: It turns out I really love Japanese food.
On this trip I was instructed as to the difference between udon and soba noodles (the first are thick and made from white flour; the second are thinner and made from ground buckwheat). I was introduced to sukiyaki and shabu shabu, two dishes cooked right at the table in a nifty electric boiler. And I experienced a delicious minced tofu dish served with some tender root veggies that made me want to buy stock in the farm that raised them.
As promised, wanting to open myself up to whatever came my palate’s way, I lifted my personal ban on eating mammals while I was accepting the hospitality of our sister city hosts. Actually, unless you are very proficient in Japanese, it would be difficult to be a vegetarian in Japan and almost impossible to be vegan. Verifying the ingredients to any given menu item is both daunting and unlikely for the lone traveler. As I discovered with my first bowl of noodles, even dishes without meat are likely to be cooked in chicken, beef or port stock. Only in the case of homemade food can a foreigner (or at least this foreigner) absolutely substantiate what she is eating.
One evening our primary hosts in Tateyama, Kinuyo and Kenji, took us to the home of some of the sister city organization members for a potluck dinner. As twelve of us, ten Japanese friends, Bill and I, sat on the floor around a low dining table, chopsticks in hand, I inspected the offerings available. The women at the head of the table kept the food circulating while the men at the other end made certain our sake cups were never empty. As each dish came to me, I had my first opportunity to really ask about the details of what I was eating.
“How did you make this?” I asked several times. The answers I received yielded not only information about the contents of my meal, but also an impromptu cooking class. I discovered that while soy sauce is definitely the most common seasoning, sesame, garlic, onion and sake are also important and regularly utilized flavorings. I tried to take mental notes as the sake slowly took its effect on my state of mind so I could attempt to recreate at home some of the tastes I was experiencing that night.
I left Tateyama with an appreciation for my hosts and for the food they had lovingly introduced me to. By the time I reached Tokyo, I was braver and slightly more knowledgeable. I had names for a few things I had tried and liked, and I felt sure that if I could find a noodle shop I could keep myself alive for a few days wandering the big city by myself.
It would turn out that I would not need my newfound knowledge, however. My friends, Marci and Akira, invited me to stay with them for a few days and offered me part two of my edible education. We first took a trip to the grocery store and later to a 100 yen shop (kind of like a $1 store). At the first, Marci and Akira explained the mysterious items I had previously felt were so ominous. I even learned that the fruits and vegetables weren’t as expensive as I had once thought. I had mistaken a small box of strawberries, for example, for 1,245 yen (about thirteen bucks) when actually the sign read “1 package for 245 yen,” which is really not so bad. A few days later at the 100 yen shop, Marci and Akira pointed out their favorite dry snacks. I bought a bag of everything they said they liked, opened them ALL when we got home and sampled each one. My favorites were these little brown sugary nuggets that looked like tiny dog poops but tasted like heaven and some deep fried sweet potatoes covered with a light coating of sugar. Yum!
Finally, on my very last night in Tokyo, after I’d been completely won over and dreaded giving up all my new beloved victuals for the stuff I usually ate at home, I visited a dear old friend for a much-too-short dinner. I’ve known Kakuei for seventeen years and we’ve seen each other through both happy and sad times. I was excited to see him and his lovely wife, Yayoi, and to meet their 22-month old toddler. I was ready to enjoy whatever they put before me, as Kakuei had graciously done when he had visited me in the States over the years and I had offered him the best cheesy, greasy delectables America had to offer. I thought he would be proud of me for my daring dabbles in Japanese cuisine. But Kakuei had read my blog entry about my distaste for Japanese food and taken it very seriously. He had encouraged his wife to order pizza and not to offer me wine. Yayoi disregarded him on both counts, thankfully. Instead she made an amazing salad with slightly browned tuna and a dressing of soy sauce and olive oil, followed by three delicious courses of vegetables, potatoes and stroganoff. She had made a perfect compromise between Japanese and American fare – just in time to ease me back into the familiar.
So here I am, returned to my own bed and my own refrigerator. I honestly never thought I’d say it, but I miss my Japanese noodles.