Photo by David Nakamura
On my first-ever night in Japan, 11 years ago, my girlfriend and I, high on adrenaline that overwhelmed our jet-lag after a 12-hour flight from Washington, D.C., stumbled into a restaurant on the sixth or seventh floor of a Tokyo office building. The small, square room was dominated by a massive, circular sushi bar, shining garishly under lights reflected off mirrored surfaces. We sat down near a young Japanese couple, picked up a menu and began pointing to each piece of fish we wanted to order.
Instead of preparing our meal, however, the chef looked stumped, prompting the young man next to us to speak up in English: "Order one piece at a time. When you finish eating it, order the next piece." A few minutes later, when we tried to pick up the sushi with our chopsticks, the man instructed us to use our fingers. "That's how we do it in Japan." Before long, Kenji introduced himself, explaining more local customs and offering sightseeing advice.
"One more thing," he added, passing me his business card as we stood to leave. "If you want a man's night on the town, call me." Now I'm back, and married--but a bachelor.
Eating in Japan can be an adventure, one that thrills, surprises, and occasionally frustrates me. A meal here can be a noteworthy event in its own right, but it is often used as the initial excuse to begin a late-night bender among friends or co-workers that includes too much drinking, embarrassing karaoke, or jaunts into the red-light district. I still haven't had the full "man's night" experience: my girlfriend destroyed Kenji's business card before we got back to the hotel. But I have at least made progress in my knowledge of Japanese cuisine and dining customs.
During several return visits and a year teaching English in Hiroshima I have sampled shabu-shabu in a beer hall after the ice festival in Sapporo, sweet potato soft-serve ice cream outside the Giant Buddha statue in Kamakura, and delicately arranged bento boxes after a relaxing bath in a hot-springs onsen in Beppu. I also have tried sticky natto paste made of fermented soybeans, learned to flip okonomiyaki pancakes, twice survived eating fugu (blowfish), and recently dipped my chopsticks into a bowl of collagen-infused nabe (hot pot)--the latest trend to keep skin young in fast-aging Japan.
My goal is to make up for lost time. Tokyo was named top food city in the world last year by the Michelin guide, but I'm relatively late to the party. Having grown up an Army brat in Europe and Washington, I was reared on pommes frites, French omelets and Belgian waffles, along with typical American staples such as meatloaf and fried chicken. With a Jewish mother, special occasions more often meant matzo and latkes than raw fish, to the chagrin of my Japanese-American father.
I have recently returned to Tokyo, having taken a year's leave from my job as a reporter for the Washington Post to participate in an international affairs fellowship through the Council on Foreign Relations. When I'm not talking foreign policy, I'm eating--and not infrequently doing both at the same time. With my wife, Kristine, who handles most of our cooking, remaining in our D.C. condo, I have leased a 240-square-foot apartment with a mini-fridge and a single burner. The American guy from whom I inherited the place called it a typical Tokyo lifestyle: work late and eat out often.