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The Japan Review

Extracts from a Japanese Food Journal: ‘We were shown to our table by this old lady with a club foot, she would go on to feature outstandingly in the meal’

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I just had the weirdest meal of the trip so far, so much so that I am writing about it at the table.

First, a little background. I had headed south from Tokyo to see about climbing Mt Fuji, but sadly she was shrouded in fog so there would not be that photo opportunity I need to justify the weird tourist sensation that is climbing a mountain. So, I made the most of being in there, road a bus to an unheated lake, found a place to camp in an enclave of trees. Bivouacked, I drank cheap whiskey and smoked filter-less cigarettes from foil packets, played chess, pondered life etc.

We went back to the bus stop in the morning. In search of real food we found a restaurant and opted for the Japanese traditional breakfast. A kind looking woman brought out a tray with 8 separate bowls and small plates containing rice, miso soup, two types of daikon, raw egg, some kind of beans with white on them (pickled cabbage?) and two different unidentifiable pickled vegetables, or they could have been fruit, or shoe laces. She had kind of laughed when we ordered it and given us the Japanese equivalent of the ‘are you sure’ eye gesture.

Well, she sort of lingered after bringing them out before eventually showing us to how to put the raw egg in with the unidentifiable beans with white on them, to then swirl it around and eat.  The whole thing was just odd, aspects were edible but ultimately the placenta like bean-egg combo was a struggle. We just ended up in fits of laughter.

After we left the lake, we went back to Tokyo for the night before heading west and here we had possibly the best meal of the trip so far. Dear Fred (my infinite dining partner) had been told not to leave Tokyo before getting Korean BBQ. Went back to a capsule hostel that we had stayed in before, and these are not actually as seedy as westerners may think they are. It is more a beautiful, functional evolution from the primitive bunk bed.

We searched for BBQ places on Japanese TripAdvisor, and found one. We spotted it on the second floor of a busy street near Shinjuku. Robbie (a friend we had met up with when we arrived in the city) had made a comment about street level food being always greasy, and the first place he took us to was a ramen shop in a basement in Harajuku, totally nondescript. Whenever you read about people travelling and eating in Tokyo, going on the those insanely expensive food tours, they always go to some unassuming place on the 7th floor of some random building. So, we were happy to eat somewhere off the street and also as we had checked it about it beforehand.

We tottered up the steps and were shown to our table by this old lady with a club foot who would go on to feature outstandingly in the meal. The place was full of these white shirted Japanese business men, all at kneeling tables smoking, drinking, creating a wonderful restaurant hum — that inimitable noise that some restaurants generate, making you really feel like you have arrived. Lady Club Foot helped us with the ordering, through pointing at pictures, a few hand gestures, and looking around at what other people were eating.

She brought out four different cuts of meat that we were to cook on a grill sunken into the centre of the table. They were all different cuts of beef, with different marinades. It was ineffable, unlike any beef I have had before or since. It really set the start of a good night, full of bar hopping and being schooled in the cuisine that is Tokyo bar snack food.

The custom when you take a seat at a Japanese bar and order a drink is to be presented with a free snack. A similar thing happens in Italy, they call it an ‘aperitivo’. One place gave us a small, empty clay pot. The bar was lined with these different kinds of nibbles in ornate jars and one could help themselves to dried bananas, puffed corn and all manner of nuts. Another bar presented us with chop-sticks and two slices of cold chicken adorned with yellow wasabi.