Friday, March 12, 2010

When In Rome . . .

I'm perched in my window on the 9th floor of the lovely La Vista Spa Resort Hotel in Kushira, Hokkaido. We were told it might be colder on Hokkaido and, indeed, it is. The snow that dampened and entertained us in Yokohama fell here in shovelsful—maybe a foot and a half—and so it's like we've gone back in time to winter. The only dirty cars we've seen yet in Japan have been here; even the only dirty streets. Walking around in Tokyo last night felt like walking around a soundstage. I was thinking Tokyo Disney at first, but there's no way they could keep that density of family revelers as clean as those regular city streets. Nevertheless, the snow is pretty pristine white, possibly because this is a booming metropolis of a mere 200,000 people, so only about 1/77th the size of the greater Tokyo-Yokohama area. And we drove through acres of pristine forest, with nary a visitor around. And bears live here—evidently lots of them. You have to be just as careful camping in the summers, and hiking around in the fall when they're preparing for the long sleeps, and in the spring when they are RAVENOUS, as you do in the Olympics and other parts of the northwest.

Anyway, while I appreciate the insane attention to detail that allows Tokyo to run as effortlessly smoothly as it does, I'm happy to be in an environment where the less-refined character of my cog isn't an imposition on the Greater Order. There's not a lot of space in the Tokyo system for the imperfection that appeases Allah. They'd better watch it.

Anyway, this is actually going to be a post about food. A favorite phrase of Mom's when we were kids was "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." This saved our necks on more than one occasion during our first visit to Italy when I was 12 or 13, and we found that the only safe way to get from one side to the other of careening motocross racers barreling around the roundabouts (why slow down? There are no corners!), was to cling bodily to a Roman, preferably a Roman nun, and take every step exactly as she took hers. Mom was mostly referring to food, though, and mostly not Roman food, because who has trouble with tomato-y, garlicky and oregano-y Italian?

Japan, however, has the potential to be difficult. I used to assume myself to be an adventuresome eater; that is really not the case. I haven't yet learned to embrace my chickenshittedness however, with all the love and acceptance that I believe it yearns for, and so I am glad that I can legitimately claim to be allergic to at least one shellfish—crab—and therefore bring all other shellfish along for the ride, even, in a pinch, bivalves or the suckery part of cephalopods. This saves me from things like shrimp and all its relatives, both large and small (although the teeny ones the Thais put in Pad Thai I manage to swallow down with the delicious, delicious everything else the Thais put in it), and any squidgy things that I can't bring myself to put in my mouth (Ian's and my bargain for Japan was that he would eat all the squidgy things while I would sing all the Karaoke. So far, only his side of the bargain has had to be held up.).

Even that moderately substantial category, however, has protected me hardly at all from an enthusiastic introduction to many, many new things.

Actually, this has been fantastic. For our first three nights in Yokohama, we were taken to dinner by groups of people. The very first night, exhausted and dazzled and bemused by 10 hours of flying time and the utter foreignness of the place we found ourselves, we were glad to find that we were eating at one of the restaurants at our hotel. It was one of those tables set close to the floor so you take off your shoes, but thankfully one that was actually set in a well in the floor so your legs didn't take leave of you in crossed numbness by the end of the evening. We ate some skewers of meaty things, some daikon pickle, some beer, some sake that was poured from a large bottle into a little pitcher until the pitcher overflowed, filling the first cup which was perfectly placed under the spout. Very theatrical. There were bits of sashimi—including horse sashimi which is, yes, raw horse—pickled quail eggs, some tempura vegetables, maybe salad, some fatty bits of smoked pork belly . . . maybe only the horse that I patted myself on the back for trying.

The next night was a festal meal, though—several of the people who had been attending the course also came to dinner bringing us to 13 in number—and the beer flowed, the sake flowed, and boy oh boy did the fish flow. I will say this: having a meal with 13 people is the way to do it in Japan. We must have had almost 20 different things served to us over the course of 2 or 3 hours, and it was all interesting, and much of it I liked a lot, and only some of it was hard to keep down, and I think there were only two things I didn't try, over legitimate concern for my health. One might imagine that one of those things would've been the chicken sashimi—yes, I just wrote that—but no, the chicken sashimi I ate.

I will say this—all the writing about food is making me hungry—and making me realize that, before I go on, I'll simply have to switch formats. Check back in a day or so for the link to a picasa site devoted to our Japanese meals. Expect detailed captions.

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