30 Courses and Lots of Leftovers


Photo by David Nakamura

To view a slide show featuring photos of David Nakamura's marathon meal, click here.

"Please arrive super-hungry," Tomoko's email advised. "The dinner will include about 30 dishes. It's a lot of food (all of it amazing)..."

How does one prepare for a 30-course meal?

You start by skipping lunch and instead hitting the gym for 45 minutes on the treadmill and an hour of weight-lifting. Then, even as your dining partners are delayed and you sit impatiently on a tatami mat around a low rectangular table at a traditional Japanese restaurant called Motomachi Bairin in Yokohama, you try as hard as you can not to eat the bag of peanut M & M's that you have in your backpack--though maybe you sneak just one for the sugar rush that your lunch-free body is craving.

Bairin, it seems, is the Cheesecake Factory of Japan.

Or at least that's what I did on a recent Saturday evening, though my stomach was still no match for Bairin's feast of feasts.

Tucked on a dark, quiet side street near a lively shopping district, Bairin is renowned for its generous portions. Its philosophy runs directly counter to the conventional wisdom that the Japanese remain slimmer than their western counterparts largely because of portion control. Bairin, it seems, is the Cheesecake Factory of Japan.

But this restaurant is no nondescript chain; it has been in business 35 years and was said to be a favorite of famed film director Akira Kurosawa, who took his staff there to celebrate after wrapping production. As a memento, he left a hand-carved wood block of Bairin's name in Kanji characters, which translates to "plum grove." The artwork greets visits as soon as they enter through the traditional noren curtains.


Photo by David Nakamura

As soon as our full group of eight is seated, a sliding wooden door opens and in comes a waiter bearing a tray of teacup-sized bowls containing a mixture of sliced mushrooms, fried tofu, and sesame seeds. This opening course is small enough that I have a rush of hope that I will indeed be able to finish all 30 courses. But that dream is dashed when the waiter returns with a giant ezo ibara gani (King crab), with foot-long legs that are pre-sliced so we can easily spear the meat and dip it in a Japanese ponzo sauce with a vinegar and soy base.

The crab is so impressive that Tomoko, a Tokyo reporter for a Western news service, lets out a half giggle and half squeal, which Christine, a communications director for a large Internet company, later calls a "squiggle." Tomoko is the reason we have been served the crab, which is a special entrée; she discovered Bairin with a group of friends and, upon her return, the Bairin management is thanking her with a special treat.

The rest of us whip out our cameras and start taking pictures of the crab. "This will be the most documented meal I will ever have," jokes Colin, a lawyer.

The rest of the evening is a race through course after course. The thing about this much food is that the waiters do not stop serving and, if you aren't careful, you can easily fall behind, which I did several times. The table begins to resemble a Tetris game, plates, bowls and cups fitting together at right angles or clashing awkwardly.

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David Nakamura is a staff writer for The Washington Post who believes that safe tap water is an important ingredient for any city that aspires to food supremacy. More

David Nakamura is a staff writer for The Washington Post who missed authentic Japanese food so much that he took a year off to escape to Tokyo on an international affairs fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations. He has written about politics, education, sports and, every now and then, Japanese food for the Post. He headed a team of reporters that was awarded the 2005 Selden Ring Award for investigative reporting after exposing excessive levels of lead contamination in the District of Columbia's drinking water and the government's failure to notify the public. His general philosophy is that safe tap water is an important ingredient for any city that aspires to food supremacy.

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