Tofu With a Side of Earthquake


Photo by David Nakamura

It was some time after the tofu skewers with miso, the creamy tofu with soy sauce, and the black sesame tofu that my wife, Kristine, and I got the real surprise serving during our 10-course feast at Goemon, a traditional tofu restaurant in northern Tokyo. The two-story wooden building began to creak and groan. The tatami mats we were sitting on started to vibrate. The diners in the private room next to ours, chatty all evening, grew quiet. Was it a thunderstorm? A typhoon? Or,, couldn't be...yes, it was...


The low rumble seemed to go on forever Sunday evening. Kristine was visiting me for 10 days and had asked for a "gastro tour," and her special request was a restaurant specializing in tofu. Goemon has been in business for more than a century and came with good reviews as a romantic oasis with a lush private garden tucked down an alley in an otherwise typical, concrete-filled Tokyo neighborhood.

At first, it did not seem real but rather felt as though we were in a theme restaurant at an amusement park. Kristine and I looked at each other. What to do?

The place had not disappointed. I have never been much of a tofu eater, but this was an experience worth the $70-per-person price. The artisanal, hand-made tofu came in an array of consistencies and flavors, delicately prepared and even more painstakingly arranged in the kind of understated but beautiful design the Japanese are famous for.

I shy away from tofu because the taste is so bland, but Goemon served its signature dish with a plum sauce, a green tea paste, a miso sauce, and a soy sauce mixed with green onions, shredded ginger, and bonito (fish) flakes. The freshness of the product was remarkable, Kristine noted, not like the packaged tofu we buy at Asian groceries in the D.C. suburbs.

Then, just as we were finishing off a honeydew melon dessert--feeling stuffed, satisfied, relaxed, sleepy, almost Zen--the floor beneath us began to move. At first, it did not seem real but rather felt as though we were in a theme restaurant at an amusement park. Kristine and I looked at each other. What to do?

"Should we go under the table?" I asked, trying to sound cool, but only half in jest. We had been eating on a low-to-the-ground lacquer rectangle with little room for either of us to fit. Kristine, who grew up in San Francisco and was 11 years old when she lived through that city's infamous 1989 quake, stood up and walked toward the door of our private room. "Let's stand under the door frame," she said.

Rumble, rumble, rumble. There were no alarms, as there might be in a fire, no instructions for evacuation on the wall. Where was the waitress? Everything was quiet. The rumble seemed to last forever--several minutes never felt longer. I kept looking at the wooden beams on the ceiling, imagining them crashing down on us, trapping us with an array of ceramic dishes and unfinished bits of tofu.

At last, the waitress wandered up the stairs, just as the floor stopped moving. I had no idea how to say earthquake in Japanese, so I asked simply, "Earthquake desu ka?" while doing a little shimmy. "Hai, quake, quake," she replied, shimmying back. We were doing the earthquake dance. She didn't look scared in the least. Japan has 20 percent of the world's biggest quakes and, after a massive one devastated Kobe in 1995, most of the country's buildings have been reinforced to survive all but the worst.

We later learned that this quake registered 6.9 on the Richter scale and, though large enough for the Tokyo train system and one professional baseball game to briefly suspend operations, did not result in loss of life or significant property damage.

Kristine's father, Mel Schenck, an architect now doing business in Vietnam, later emailed to confirm what his daughter had already told me: that being in a wooden building, despite the creaking and groaning sounds, was the safest of all types of structures--that is, unless a fire were to break out in the aftermath of a collapse.

Kristine and I returned to our table, and I took a few sips of the plum wine I had been ignoring. Scary while it lasted, the quake is now a fun story to tell: One meal on the gastro-tour that we won't soon forget.

Goemon is at 1-1-26 Hon-komagome, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo, Japan. Phone: 03-3812-0900. Hours: Tues-Fri, noon-2 p.m., 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Sat-Sun, noon-8 p.m.; closed Monday.