Bigger Chopsticks

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Looking back over the penultimate week of my travels, I find that, despite Hong Kong’s immensity and interestingness, the experience and memories stemming from it are mainly culinary in nature. Therefore, allow me to begin by briefly listing the animals (and parts therein) which I have eaten for the first time (actually or effectively) over the course of this past week with those tree-trunks they call eating utensils in this country:

  • Abalone
  • Crab
  • Razor clam
  • Normal clam
  • Scallops
  • Oysters
  • Chicken feet
  • Pork intestine
  • Pork kidney
  • Parts of an unidentified fish’s face
  • Mantis shrimp
  • Very strong vegetabley tea
  • Cane sugar syrup

Although this was interspersed with various more regular meats, coming from a life that one could hardly be called seafood-focused I had some adapting to do when faced with a large central plate of slimy salty things and an innate need to prove myself as the only foreigner in a restaurant full of locals.

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Speaking of locals, I found myself reacquainted with a number of borders from back at
school. It makes sense geographically, but was still rather disconcerting for both parties. Thankfully English was rather more comfortable for them, as I had gotten rather too well-practiced at a blank stare and half-smile at mealtimes to make up for my total lack of Cantonese.

Effigies of the possessions of the deceased to be burnt at funerals

Effigies of the possessions of the deceased to be burnt at funerals

When not eating or sleeping I wandered the streets of the city with my old friend and guide Simon, being shown places the names of which I cannot remember, most of which were (deliberately) somewhat grotty, intriguing and mildly intimidating. Hong Kong is comprised almost entirely of malls, very tall, thin blocks of flats and markets. We spent most of our time in the latter, coming across all sorts of bizarre and very culturally specific items for sale.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the myriad experiences that found me here, I feel Tokyo calling once more and look forward to being back in a country where food is eaten out of plates rather than bowls with unnecessary spoons and people don’t talk on the train.

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Many Meetings

Because 'Two Drawn-Out Meetings' didn't have the same ring to it

Because ‘Two Drawn-Out Meetings’ didn’t have the same ring to it

Living as I do out in the suburbs, beyond even the reach of the blessed Chūō Rapid Line, the opportunity of joining an Bradley at the end of his stay in Japan and, as he so poetically put it, have “the tourist guide the literate” was one that, to my as-yet not completely thawed mind (more on that later), was to be seized with both slightly frost-bitten hands.

Day I

Such enthusiasm was not abundantly evident in our first meeting. I personally blame my housemates for apparently deciding that sleep is the crutch of the weak at heart. Nevertheless, it was two hours late that I arrived, sheepishly, in Akihabara. This district is home to the enormous monolith that is Yodobashi Camera, of Harrods size but full of electronics. The clientele in certain smaller shops can get more classically otaku, to the point where one feels they might need a shower after viewing some of the items on sale. Culutral differences, we explain to ourselves.

Even the mighty sumo are not immune to tourists

Even the mighty sumo are not immune to tourists

Paul, a friend of Bradley’s, joined us in Ueno for the classic ‘let’s feed cake to the sparrows‘ tour which has become a mainstay of my wanders. It seems that they have come to associate humanity’s presence with the promise of sacchariferous sustenance, even in such foul weather. This has already been the subject of a post, but allow me once again iterate the entertainment that can be gleaned from buying a slightly expensive piece of cake and having half the avian class fight in mid-air for the honour of taking it from you. Even Paul was impressed.

So it was that, after much meandering and a worryingly long time spent in a department store in Tokyo Station and an ‘English pub’ in Ueno, we found ourselves battling with mother nature to reach the equally legendary Kura Sushi. In addition to the usual carousel of delicacies, there is an iPad ordering system, which operates on a separate belt above. Those who survive the experience are known to suddenly twitch and salivate at the sound of the doorbell which is herald to such orders. We left pleasantly

Come all the way to Japan, eat chicken nuggets

Come all the way to Japan, eat chicken nuggets

full, and my personal collection of mini sushi phone charms grew by a respectable one at the hands of a game of chance which runs after every fifth plate.

We ended Valentines’ Day gasping for breath at the entrance to Shibuya Station, part way through the process of very effectively camouflaging ourselves with snow. In Japan this is marked by women giving chocolate to men, who have a whole month to steel themselves before they reciprocate on White Day. I can only assume mine are in the post.

Day II

This time the delay came from the snow, which seems determined to match the severity which is (apparently) expressed in the British media. Now that we’re on Snowstorm II, Nature seems to have adjusted her tactics in order to cause maximum inconvenience. Gone is the chilled marshmallow of a few days ago, and replaced with puddles and grey sludge. One must be exceedingly careful and cannot afford to rush anywhere. The latter was expressed wholeheartedly by the trains (even the venerated JR Line), as evidenced by their great reluctance to take me back to Kōenji at the end of the day.

Despite the weather, our choice of breakfast was all but decided for us as we happened to walk past a café. While Paul remained sensible, it quickly became apparent that, between myself and Bradley at least, brunch (as it turned out to be) was a test of moral fibre and honour. Behold my entry.

From top: cone, two scoops of vanilla ice cream, chocolate cake, cheesecake (hidden), banana, pancake, cream, strawberry yoghurt with cornflakes, cream and five profiteroles.

From top: cone, two scoops of vanilla ice cream, chocolate cake, cheesecake (hidden), banana, pancake, cream, strawberry yoghurt with cornflakes, cream and four profiteroles.

This monolith of sugared delights (at first) surpassed Bradley’s in bulk, even if his did reach such as height as to remove the necessity of cutlery or even leaning down to take the first bite. The challenge was great, but in the end both of us succeeded.

The aftermath

The aftermath

When we are younger, we believe that one of the greatest advantages of adulthood lies in the ability to make our own decisions. It is only later that we realise that decisions are comprised predominantly of mistakes. I can confidently say that, as adults, we made tho particular decision and paid the price in stomachache.

We were nearing the end of our meeting, and headed to the Tokyo Metropolitan Building for a view of the city, Mt. Fuji and (principally) because it required no walking whilst exposed to the elements. One of the underpass is a favourite spot for the homeless, who seem untroubled by the authorities as long as they are quiet and tidy. I have resolved to return when I look less like a tourist and more like a serious (and more low-profile) photographer.

JKR_8312Thus my first meeting with extra-Japanese agents was concluded, and I left with nothing but a half bottle of vodka and memories of a not-so-distant chill to work my way round the Journey of a Thousand Detours back home.

 

What I’ve learnt about Japanese food so far

Everyone knows that lists are the most lazy form of blogging, so I’ll try to keep these down to a minimum. However, I think the format is amply suited to this particular subject. Just over 10 days in, let’s go through what I’ve learned.

You actually do need katakana

Katakana

For those of you who don’t know (and I know there are many), Japanese has three scripts. Kanji are the Chinese characters, like 食 or 飲, used liberally for almost all nouns, names, verbs and adjectives. They are non-phonetic, so you need to know it before you can read a word containing it. Hiragana (ひらがな) are phonetic, and are used for particles, conjugations and sometimes words with particularly complicated or esoteric kanji. Katakana (カタカナ) are also phonetic, but are used for loanwords. This is where you’ll get your ビッグマック (Biggu Makku – Big Mac) and your チキンカツ (chikin katsu – chicken katsu), as the script often adorns menus.

I hold my hands up, here. I didn’t quite anticipate just how often this last script is used, nor just how slow I was at reading it. On more than one occasion I’ve had to either order in English or basically pick something at random because I’ve spent so long staring at a menu and painfully reading out the characters that the waiter/barista/chef has gotten slightly restless and resorted to my mother tongue. The pain is only intensified by the fact that 90% of the menu items are either direct English transliterations (chicken katsu is actually called 鳥かつ, ‘torikatsu’ in Japanese) or easily work out-able words like ハツ (hatsu, or ‘heart’) which are really rather useful to know before you put into your mouth parts of an animal that arguably should never be eaten.

Make a battle plan, but be flexible

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Despite looking very obviously out of place, I have a distinct streak of wanting to appear totally confident in everything I try here. The restauranteurs see a pale, emaciated gaijin who’s been mouthing out the entire menu for the last ten minutes, but in my mind, as soon as I walk in that door, I’m Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, with such expert language skills and social graces that all who witness my suave handling of the situation will wonder whether I’ve even lived outside Japan.

Of course, the key to this is to know what to do before you do it. One thing I didn’t bank on as I planned my final assault was these ordering machines. Some are more helpful than others, with pictures and touch screens and such, but some merely confront you with words to put your linguistic prowess to the test. It took ten minutes of trying to give my order to the chef (who was having none of it), then finally being led to the machine (which I had assumed was for drinks), paying, and then being told that the ticket I had been fed was meant to be given to the chef, rather than kept by my while I tried to avoid eye contact with any potentially humoured onlookers.

When your チキンカツ (I hope you’ve been paying attention!) arrives with about six eggs cracked over the top and a side order of bizarre pickle-water, you’ve got to go for it. Your companion may not want to tell you exactly which part of a pig that is, but without trying it you’ll just never know. This mindset is only 50% adventurousness. Western food is surprisingly hard to come by, at least in Koenji. If I can’t stomach what I’ve ordered and/or bought, I don’t eat, and I certainly can’t live on food parcels from home. Planning in advance makes sense, but in the event of total bewilderment, close your eyes, grab your chopsticks and dive in regardless.

It probably isn’t

From left: Actual milk, the yoghurt/lemonade mixture-juice that I thought was milk on the first pass

From left: Actual milk, the yoghurt/lemonade mixture-juice that I thought was milk on the first pass

Now, this isn’t limited to food but rather all forms of purchase. As a tourist, supermarket shopping is generally kept to a minimum or non-existent depending on one’s plans, but it dawned on me very quickly that, as I was in this for the long haul, I wouldn’t be able to survive very long on tiffin and biscuits. It was a little like planning for the nuclear apocalypse, only with a slightly less immediate threat of radiation poisoning.

Dear Lord. It was perhaps one of the greatest culture shocks I experienced when I realised that, not only could I hardly read any packets in the supermarket (particularly dangerous in a country where our British concepts of what parts are acceptable to eat are cheerfully thrown out of the figurative window), but that even if I could I had no idea how to prepare something based on packet instructions, and my knowledge would surely fail when it came to buying various condiments. It was a good few days before I managed to get a genuine Japanese guide to help with such things.

As one might reasonably expect, I did the logical thing and used the pictures on the front as my guide. Herein lies the most bewildering problem. Some things don’t have pictures, and thus I end up buying a strange bastard child of barbecue sauce and vinegar rather than the soy sauce I so needed. A colleague of mine told me that she only realised she had bought bathroom disinfectant when she covered herself with it, thinking up until that point that she was using shower gel. This rite of passage is fraught with danger. You have been warned.

Even if it is, it still probably isn’t

The most sour thing I have ever tasted

Actually burned through aluminium lunch boxes in the 60’s

Let’s say you’ve managed to get through the minefield of katakana that constitutes a menu, and, with much gesticulating and slow clear speaking, have successfully ordered your choice of dish. A rice-y soup-y meal with sour apricot. ‘What an exciting combination of tastes this will surely be’, your eager imagination tells you. I mean, if one were to take a sweet fruit and make it sour, surely one would keep aspects of both tastes in order to preserve the spirit of the original medium, with a twist, right? Right?

No, not right. What you see above makes lemon juice and vinegar seem to taste like sugar-coated dolly mixture ice cream. This was so tongue-shrivellingly sour that it makes David Miliband after the 2010 Labour Party leadership election look like a quadruple gold-medallist. If there was some remnant of sweet, juicy apricot left in this orange sphere of acidity, it died along with most of my tastebuds.

The moral of this tale? If even a Japanese person warns you about it, look at the other side of the menu and order from there. Unless it’s ハツ. I’m not that hungry. Yet.

Not Quite 24 (Conscious) Hours

Koenji, 15:19:17 26/01/14

My sense of time is still pretty terrible at the moment, perhaps as evidenced by my absolute conviction that I had slept all through Sunday, only to check and find, to my great dismay, that it was still resolutely Saturday. What an embarrassing climb-down. Thankfully I have achieved some scattered sleep, and will hopefully be totally de-zombified tomorrow.

Consciousness and some semblance or orientation achieved, I managed to leave the house for the first time and get some bread and butter from the cheerfully-named Family Mart around the corner.

Finally, some real food!

Finally, some real food!

After this rather modest, but no less enjoyable breakfast, I had a bit of an explore of the city. Even Koenji alone is rather large, and I’ve learnt that it helps to check the kanji for the stop at which one wants to get off BEFORE walking all the way to the station. A milestone for my Japanese came when I managed to pluck up the courage to ask a bookshop owner if they had a copy of Oku no Hosomichi, which took a good half an hour of wandering around trying to find it by myself within the crowded shelves. Baby steps.

During my wanderings back and forth from the house, I met my other housemates. One is from Shanghai and speaks vastly better Japanese than I do, while the other is actually Japanese and speaks English slightly better than my own second language. Looks like I have a lot of catching up to do.

After my high-brow jaunt to a proper bookshop, I thought I should probably buy something I can actually read. Hurrah for furigana-ed manga!

They even wrap it in paper, so you can read of Rock Lee's adventures while the other commuters are none the wiser

They even wrap it in paper, so you can read of Rock Lee’s adventures while the other commuters are none the wiser

Have a look below for a few more photographic observations. All I need to do now is survive the dreaded Dinner-Time-with-Quiet-Japanese-Light-Entertainment-TV-in-the-Background-to-mask-my-distinctly-lacking-language-skills and make it through the night, preferably without waking up every two hours.

A darts bar. Why not?

A darts bar. Why not?

Yet another clue for the Death Note aficionados out there

Yet another clue for the Death Note aficionados out there