Sunday, October 04, 2009

[Travelogue] Cultural and culinary adventures in the land of the rising sun

If Dubai is Vegas on Steroids then Tokyo is New York on Valium. It's superficially like New York in much the same way that Dubai is superficially like Vegas: the weather is similar (it sucks most of the time), it's crowded, there are lots of skyscrapers, great for walking around in, etc. etc. But where Dubai takes Vegas and gives it a hard edge (and takes most of the fun out of it), Tokyo takes New York and softens it up. It's clean. Everyone is polite. People line up for the bus. (When it comes to queuing up, the British have nothing on the Japanese.) Drivers stop for pedestrians. No one honks their horn.

I have to say, though, that as much as I loved Japan, I found the extreme politeness ultimately to be a little off-putting. For one thing, Tokyo-ites are so good at not making eye contact that whenever I wanted to stop someone on the street to ask directions I felt like I was committing a major breach of protocol. And maybe I was. There are so many unwritten rules in Japan (did you know that it's horribly rude to pass food using chopsticks?) that it's nearly impossible for a casual traveller not to break half a dozen of them before breakfast. I found myself in constant fear of committing a major blunder and bringing dishonor upon my fellow gai-jins.

I don't know whether it's because I'm just more familiar with the culture, or if really is simpler, but it seems to me it's a lot easier to learn how to get along in New York than in Tokyo despite the rough edges. You can get along in New York knowing only one simple rule: don't waste someone else's time. That doesn't mean that people are unfriendly; they aren't. They just don't want to wait around while you dither. Paris has two basic rules: learn some French, and don't ask for salt in restaurants. London has one rule: don't cut in line. But I don't know of any way to distill how to get along in Tokyo to a pithy slogan. Maybe if there are some ex-pats reading this you can help me out.

Japan is particularly challenging because of all the places I've been it's the one where people were least likely to speak English. On top of that, the language is completely alien to me. I speak three and a half languages (English, German, Hebrew, and kinda sorta Spanish) and that gives me an anchor to pick up enough Italian or French or Arabic to get along nearly everywhere we've been. But Japanese is nothing like any of those languages. I suppose the Japanese have the same problem with English.

Nancy and I are big sushi fans, and we ate almost nothing else the entire time we were in Japan. It was not until we got to Nagasaki that we discovered to our dismay that there is in fact mediocre sushi to be had in Japan. But that's still a pretty good track record. We mostly just chose places at random, and nearly all of them were excellent, as good as or better than anything you get in the States. Uni (sea urchin) in particular is a completely different beast in Japan. In the States, uni is considered "advanced" or "challenging" sushi, an acquired taste. It turns out that this is because uni in the States sucks. It tastes like it has been sitting out in the sun for three days. In Japan, the uni doesn't taste the least bit fishy. It's nutty. If you imagine taking a really rare steak and making it more and more tender until it becomes maguro tuna, then do an analogous transformation on foie gras and you'd have proper uni. It's absolutely delicious. Even in Nagasaki, where the rest of the sushi we had was just so-so, the uni was delicious.

The Japanese also serve their sushi without the glob of wasabi that invariably accompanies it in the States. You still get pickled ginger, but wasabi is pre-applied in the proper amount by the sushi chef, and you don't get to mess with that. Surprisingly, it turns out that even in Japan, what is called wasabi usually isn't. It's horseradish dyed green. Real wasabi root is only found in the very top-end sushi establishments in both countries, which is really odd because wasabi root is not expensive. We found it in the market for 500 yen (about $6) for a root the size of a small tube of toothpaste, which would be easily enough for a dozen servings. That's not quite as cheap as rice or ginger, but not enough to break the bank either. But it was never offered to us, not even as an optional add-on. Is a puzzlement.

One one occasion in Osaka we decided to forego sushi and go for noodles instead. We ended up in this tiny little noodle bar in Osaka, where we were served the slimiest, fishiest noodles you can imagine, along with this duck-and-egg concoction that seemed to be made more out of duck feet than meat. We looked at each other and wondered how we were going to eat enough of this so that we could leave without insulting the proprietor. So we dug in, and a very odd thing happened: as we slogged through the meal, it started to grow on us, and by the time we were done we'd eaten nearly all of it and it seemed downright tasty. It was the strangest thing.

Oops, gotta run. Dinner time. They're serving duck.

1 comment:

Curt Sampson said...

I wouldn't worry too much about committing blunders unknowingly. The Japanese understand that they're quite different from the rest of the world culturally, and those who are obvious gaijin (such as Europeans) get cut a lot of slack.

Japan is possibly the strangest country in the world, not only by Western standards, but almost all standards. Many other westerners agree with me that, for example, Chinese and Americans are closer culturally than Chinese and Japanese. And the language is very different, too; linguists are still debating whether it has any connection at all with any other language in the world.