When in Japan… you eat… well, I’m not really sure.
Because we moved with the military, we have the option of living in a little America. We can live on base, eat at the local Chilis or McDonalds, and go to a traditional movie theater on the weekends. And frankly, it’s a nice safety blanket. But we moved here for the purpose of trying something new, and we want to embrace it. So we are contacting realtors to find our new home!
In the meantime, we are exploring the world around us, walking around Yokosuka, taking the train to Tokyo, and trying not to stare as we see a young Japanese woman with pink hair dressed in an adult-sized bunny suit. But first thing’s first: food!
Actually, our first dinner out was easy. Our new friends took us to a fabulous restaurant in Yokohama – Charcoal Grill Green, where Alex was able to get a beautifully cooked steak and potato wedges. (Though the stars of the meal were the spiced edamame and deconstructed apple pie).
But the next night it was time for us to set forth on our own. We simply walk toward the bright lights, moving in silent unison. After we take it all in, Alex interrupts the trance and says, “Damn, I wish I read Japanese!” taking the words right out of my mouth. We both realize that there is no English on the signage. Everyone told us the Japanese all speak English. You’ll be fine. Um. No. It’s true, in Tokyo, the waiters and salespeople all speak English. But in the smaller city of Yokosuka, not so much. The signs could be hieroglyphics for all I can read them!
So without words to follow, we choose our next best option and let our nose lead the way. There are restaurants that smell of deep-fried meat, some of spicy curry, and others of cinnamon sugar. It’s an intoxicating bouquet of flavors. The aromas combine with the fluorescent glow of the neon signs and the click-clack of commuters’ shoes against the sidewalk. The effect is exhilarating.
After 45 minutes of exploration we decide on a tiny hole-in-the-wall (though that could describe almost all restaurants in Japan). It boasts individual table-top stoves that entice us. We aren’t sure what they’re for and they don’t have an English menu, but we cautiously open the door and are greeted with smiles, bows, and “hai, hai, hai” (yes, yes, yes).
The entire restaurant has less than 15 seats. It includes a long bar with stools and four tables. One inside, and the other three are outside, enclosed by a plastic “wall” that keeps in the heat. We are seated outside and offered warm fleece blankets for our laps. Um, yes please! Then we are handed menus that have beautiful calligraphy and limited pictures. Thank goodness for the google translate app. We take a picture of the menu and it converts it into English – item by item. (This could take a while!)
I am aghast when my picky husband orders a rice bowl with tuna two ways. Perhaps I am less adventurous, because I settle on spiced spare ribs. And we order our usual edamame just in case we can’t stomach the rest.
The waiter returns and presents us with a well-used piece of paper that has five or six phrases typed in many languages, including English. The first reads:
There is a 500 yen cover charge for o-toshi. Is this okay?
The paper goes on to state the tipping policy (you don’t), and also has phrases such as I am allergic to ____________ and other necessary communications.
We aren’t sure what o-toshi is, but we nod and say “hai,” and he bows and nods in return. Two minutes later he brings a miniature pot, removes the lid and shows us… something. They look like small cockles. Then he smiles, we smile, and all say “hai.” He puts the pot onto the table-side cooktop and hands Alex a timer, set for 6 minutes. He pantomimes a bit, and then bows some more. We wait the 6 minutes and then peer at the shellfish. Alex has never enjoyed shellfish of any kind, and I am unsure about clams and muscles. But, when in Rome…! So we each pick up a shell with our chopsticks and attempt to use the same instruments to remove the meat.
Success! And it’s not too bad! A bit fishy (perhaps the most redundant of descriptions) and very chewy. But we swallow every one. We don’t wish to be rude.
After we finish them, we pull out the iPhone (yes, they are obligatory everywhere) and research o-toshi. Turns out, it is a mysterious compulsory appetizer. You never know what it will be, but most restaurants in Japan have them and charge between 300 and 500 yen ($2.75 – 4.50). And, as it turns out, you aren’t required to eat them. Oh well!
Then the food arrives, and we definitely didn’t need the edamame. It was all delicious. My serving was three small ribs sprinkled with green onions and a dab of spicy mustard. Succulent, sweet, and perfectly cooked. Alex received a huge bowl of sticky rice with two types of raw tuna on top. The colors were striking, but I was more concerned about taste. Surprisingly my finicky husband dove right in – proud moment – and pronounced it awesome! Awesome, that is, until he found the large lump of wasabi. Unfortunately he discovered it post-bite. His eyes began to water and sweat dripped down his forehead. But he refrained from actual pained noises!
Despite the heat, we had a wonderful first date-night in Japan. We loved the food, and had plenty to discuss during dinner! Life here is going to be challenging, but where’s the fun in easy? I’ll take weird and exciting any day!