I’ve been trying to figure out how I am going to post on last May’s trip to Japan. Yeah, once again it’s another topic that has nothing to do with Atlanta, but these days half of my sparse writings are generally unrelated to the Atlanta area. But food knowledge from the “outside world” influences the way I both eat and cook. Besides the obvious enjoyments of eating, I like to think and know about the context of dishes and trends, or the influences and contributions of particular chefs – it adds depth to the experience. It may sound like there’s a tad bit of righteousness, but I want to know what’s good and why, and understand the significance. Most food has a history.
When Katie and I were planning the trip, I made a particular point to not go overboard on the scheduling of food. We had just a couple of reservations for a two week period. But I did have specific goals, and I made a list of things I wanted to do should time permit. Ramen, sushi, yakitori, fugu, coffee, cocktails, soba, Kobe beef, kaiseki, izakaya, tempura, and a few others were all accounted for.
In each city, I made a list of restaurants I had read about in guidebooks, heard about from friends, saw on television (“Mind of a Chef” Season 1 was a major contribution), or have seen talked about on websites and twitter. Adam from A Life Worth Eating had just visited six months prior, and his Flickr and Twitter were great contributions. I created a custom Google map for each city, with more destinations than we could ever hit. But say we were taking in a sumo match in Tokyo, or visiting one of many shrines and gardens in Kyoto, I could pull up my map and quickly determine if I knew of something to eat nearby. If not, good food was not hard to find.
A rough cut of my list is available here, in case anyone is bored or is planning a trip. I planned for months, which only created more excitement. I learned about the history of certain cities and the popular dishes in each and how they developed. I put together a one page sheet I carried in my pocket with Japanese phrases, such as watashi wa bejitarian desu (I am a vegetarian – for Katie), and Oishii which translates to delicious, and always brought a smile to my server or chef’s face when uttered between bites and slurps.
I think people appreciated our basic language efforts, and everyone was extremely polite, patient, and generous with us for the entire two weeks. We had not one negative interaction. People went out of their way to help us with directions (but Google Maps was the bomb though, it knows the complete train schedule and will even tell you what you fare will be for your chosen route.) White-gloved, well dressed cab drivers held open doors for us, and waitresses followed us as we exited restaurants, bowing until we were out of sight. I’ve never seen such a culture of service. I know Japan has some issues related to the suppression of emotion, but it was refreshing to have a positive experience in what in many destinations would be a challenging situation.
There’s me with an almost six month pregnant wife, carrying both of our luggage up and down stairs as we race through train stations bigger than the Georgia Dome. And though there are thousands of people going every which way, no one bumps into you, gives you a eat shit look, and a random person or two kindly points me in the direction of our train. Once on board people step aside to let Katie sit on the special bench for elderly and pregnant persons, smiling at us and pointing at her belly as we zoom off to our next destination. And though some trains are jammed nearly face to face, no one really pushes, offloading is orderly, it’s extremely clean, and it is dead quiet. Not even a single phone ring in two weeks, people are extremely diligent to put their phones on silent. It would be rude to not do so. Imagine a MARTA experience like this – it’s laughable.
This is just one social example of many which I encountered, and it fascinated me. The food there is no different. Japanese people love to eat, and love to eat well. In Osaka they have a word called kuidaore which roughly translates as “to eat oneself bankrupt”. And one can nearly do so, though not all food in Japan is expensive. The street food and small shops on every block are so omnipresent and numerous it’s dizzying at times.
We did our best to experience it all, especially my pregnant wife who was a real trooper as we walked all over the cities of Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, and Kobe. We had so much fun, I learned so much, and it was exciting to be outside of my comfort zone at times, but in a friendly and safe environment.
Over the next week or two I will be putting up short posts regarding specific foods and cities, in order to make this all a little easier to digest. I hope some people find it as interesting as I did.
If anyone reading these posts is going to Japan, I’m happy to send more materials on travel, hotels, trains, restaurants, whatever. I kept a lot of notes and I love talking about it and am excited for anyone who may be going to visit such a great country.