What you'll find on Storybook Days

The Home page displays all my musings on life in Japan and a few other things (baseball and children's books are distinct possibilities). For highlights only: "A Day in the Life (edited)." "Tabemono (Food)" is exactly that. "Big in Japan" is my completely biased and oversimplified list of what is popular in Japan, and "Kimono Count" is a day-by-day record of the people I see in traditional dress. "Editor's Delight" catalogs the unintentionally amusing and apparently quite complicated world of Japanese-English translation. "Uncle Tucker" tracks our sightings of a certain cat following us around Japan.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Epicurean Culture Wars

    New York City has nothing on Tokyo.  The number of Tokyo's restaurants seems infinite.  Each block has at least two or three shops where you can sit for a meal of sushi or soba (noodles).   The menus are not extensive (definitely not in English), and the shops are often run by a man and woman (husband and wife; mother and son).  Small white linen flags hanging over the entrance announce that the venue is open.  A hearty "Irasshaimase!"  (Welcome!) greets you as you enter what is invariably a small, cozy space with room for maybe 10 or 15 people.  If you are hungry, you are in for a treat.
    As it happens, our apartment is across the street from such a place, Taro, which is run by the ever-smiling Mama-san. 
 No one speaks English, and she does not care that you do not speak Japanese.  She cajoles and recommends; laughs and lectures.  All you have to do is nod and eat, and that is exactly what we did Wednesday night.  
    Frank has been going to eat with Mama-san and her regulars since he first arrived in Tokyo just over a month ago.  Like Norm, he is greeted with a hearty "Frank-san!" when he walks in the door, though no one can say much else to him in English.  He seems to be much beloved, perhaps because he is the world's least picky eater.  (Well, maybe with the exception of our friend Rafe, who once ate a "century egg" when in the Philippines.  A century egg is 100 days old.  Rotten.  It almost killed him.)  The bottom line is that Frank sits and eats and asks very few questions.  A chef's dream. 
    When we arrived at the restaurant, Mama-san was delighted to see that Frank finally had his family in tow.  We were rushed to the back, where traditional "sunken" tables and bamboo tatami mats were nestled into a stage that held four small dining areas.  Two of the four areas were already taken by local business men and women.  We left our shoes at the bottom of the steps (thank God we remembered clean socks), and we walked up two steps to the seating area.  
    Immediately the room was abuzz.  The other patrons were clearly amused by the arrival of gaijin (foreigners).  Mama-san's waiter, Ichiro--who is actually Chinese, quickly rushed out of the kitchen and over to our table, acknowledging Frank with a look of apprehension.  Ichiro knew he was going to have to work hard--he doesn't speak a word of English. 

With great hope, he looked to the patrons sitting next to us:  "Eego o hanashimas ka?" he asked them.  (Do any of you speak English?)  Luckily for him, they did.  A little.  One woman was particularly helpful.  With her English, my Japanese, and Frank's phrase book, we were able to order our drinks, including Frank's own bottle of  shochu, a clear Japanese liquor.  At Taro, each regular has his or her own bottle of shochu, and Frank is no exception.

Frank's month of experience here payed off not only with shochu.  He's learned that if you want to be served or communicate with a server in any way, you have to ask, and the way you ask is to say (with authority) "Sumimasen!"  It roughly translates as "I am sorry," but in Japan people use it for just about anything:  I'm sorry, excuse me, oops, ouch, I want to order, and so on.  In fact, without hailing the waiter, you'd probably never order.  (Because, you see, rushing the patron is rude, and asking the patron to order is considered rushing.)  Soon after arriving, we realized it was getting late for the kids.  We needed to order before they were too tired to eat.

Note the guy in back giving the thumbs up; he's from the NS
The other patrons all seemed concerned that we get enough to eat and that we get something we like.  And this is where things started to get interesting.  Very interesting.  The other parties dining that night fell into two categories:  Old School (OS) , which was a party of 2 men and 2 women, and New School (NS), which was a party of 3 men and 2 women.  Those at the OS table were reserved, drinking sake and smoking while they ate.  Those at the NS table were boisterous, talking with their hands, getting up and down often, and insisting on knowing as much about us as possible.   The NS table had a particular affinity for our kids.
    In the beginning, each table had a hand in translating the menu for us.  The OS table asked if we would like help with the menu.  We said thank you but that we would like to try it on our own first.  The NS table was having none of it.  They sent one of their own to pick up the menu (which was written on a small white board) and bring it over to us.  They "translated" the menu item by item, or so they thought.  Before we knew what was happening, the NS had called over Ichiro ("Sumimasen!") and had ordered for all of us.  "I think we just ordered a lot of food, " Frank sighed.  Just then one of the men from the OS table leaned toward me, cigarette in hand, and whispered, "Pushy, aren't they?" nodding toward the NS table.  The battle was on.
     It had started so simply--everyone wanted to help--but soon it was an all-out cultural battle.  Ordering proved to be the first round.  The second round was gift giving.  Not long after we had ordered, it was clear that jet lag was quickly claiming the kids.  AH stared blankly into space, barely touching his Japanese lemon soda.  IW leaned against me like a sack of potatoes, his lemon soda also untouched.  The next salvo was from a woman in the NS group;  she insisted that the boys perk up and join the conversation.  She pulled a small charm from her purse--a marbled blue glass bead hanging from a blue cord.  She handed it to the boys.  "A gift," she said.  "For you."  None of the guidebooks had prepared us for this moment.  The boys sheepishly accepted the gift, but before they had time to argue over who got to keep it, I whisked it into my bag.  Idle chit chat ensued among the tables.  The NS ambassadors barraged us with cell phone photos of their children and grandchildren, as well as a photo op:

Two of the NS peeps.  Look at Ian--so unbelievably tired.
    Finally our appetizer arrived.   Small whole fish (like very long, skinny sardines) prepared tempura-style.  Lightly breaded and salted, they reminded me of perfect calamari:  a light crunch, a hint of salt, and then melting in your mouth like butter.  The dish was delightful and welcomed, as it was getting late and the boys' systems were shutting down for the night.  Even iPod games could not keep their eyes open.  It was then that the OS table made their move.  First, the younger woman from the OS table left the room.  While she was gone, the older OS woman, who was likely in her 60s, stood up and berated the patrons at the NS table.  I didn't need to speak a word of Japanese to know what she was saying:  "You're drinking too much, you're too loud, and you're making fools of yourself.  Shut up!"  So they did.  You could have heard a pin drop in Taro.
    When the younger woman returned, she carried two large Cokes with her.  One for each child.  She realized that the boys had not liked their lemon sodas.  (She knew they had originally asked for Coke, which is a treat for them, but Taro's does not have Coke.)  She had gone down the block to the corner vending machine to fetch the drinks.  With a hearty "domo arigato gozaimasu," the boys accepted the Cokes.  IW perked up long enough to drink his down, but he was right back to dozing after that:

    The NS table had been put in their place, but only for about five minutes.  No amount of contempt from the other table could sway them from their need to interact.  They told us stories in broken English and Japanese.  One woman showed me a cell phone picture of a tree.  It was one tree with another kind grafted onto it and growing with it.  After a few minutes I realized what she was trying to convey;  "Like the United States and Japan," I said.   "YES!"  She cried, beating her chest and smiling so widely I could see the crowns on her back teeth. 
   Eventually our food arrived, though IW had long since fallen asleep.  The tree lady, perhaps emboldened by our moment of bonding over U.S.-Japan relations, tried to pry him out of my lap to wake him.  I had to get pushy.  "No."  That was enough.  She got my drift.  We were allowed to eat in relative peace. 
 At one point, the younger woman from the OS table shared a piece of her dessert:  cooked egg soaked in syrup.  It was delicious.  AH managed to eat quite a bit of his dinner, though IW never lifted his head.  Frank ate his fill of sashimi, which I shared.  Each bite was like a gift, a small surprise melting in your mouth before you were sure you had been able to taste it completely.
  As the evening drew to a close, the NS table got up to say their goodbyes.  Business cards were exchanged;  Frank somehow ended up with a marketing portfolio from one of the NS men (entirely in Japanese).  They shouted to us about Facebook as they left.  Satisfied that the NS patrons were gone, the older woman at the OS table leaned toward us and said in perfect English:  "They were Japanese drunks."  Another cultural moment not covered in the guidebooks.  I tried to convey a look that said, "No worries, it happens to all of us."  I have no idea if I succeeded.  Luckily, Frank intervened and asked one of the men at the OS table if he had been to the restaurant before.  "Yes," the man said.  He admitted he had seen Frank there before.  We said our goodbyes, and I set about waking IW for the walk home.  The next morning, IW denied that he had ever fallen asleep at the restaurant, and I imagined that somewhere in Tokyo, several patrons of Taro were denying that they were hung over.