Tasting Tokyo

Sake and sashimi

I’m expecting fans, futons, and formalities, but on arriving in Japan, I’m not quite prepared for the food.

In an izakaya – crowded, wooden, smoky – with a local journalist, Hiro, I grab a fistful of what look like crisps, and find in my hand instead a cluster of small dried fish heads. On cue, the earth seems to shimmer beneath us.

“I think I’m feeling phantom earthquakes,” I tell Hiro, as he offers me chicken foie gras on a chopstick. It’s indescribable.

“Maybe it’s the subway,” he says kindly.

Or maybe it’s my stomach. I try raw horse, which is paradise on a plate, followed by crackly chicken cartilage, which is not; spilled brains, which turn out to be roe; and a whole small fish battered in tempura.

“Do I eat everything?” I ask my host, eyeing the fish’s scaly tail.

“Even the bones,” he says, and shakes a pair of maracas left on the table. A waitress materializes, and presents us each with a small bowl of soup.

“What’s this?” I ask. There’s an odd kind of meat floating belly-up in the middle.

Hiro consults his electronic dictionary, and shows me across the low table:

guts
rectum
shitbag

It takes a long time to get the soup down after that: chopsticks aren’t much help with tripe. As a consolation, Hiro orders small pieces of butter, for dessert, and a few sticks of bamboo. We wash it all down with sweet potato spirit, and the earth seems to shimmer more than ever.

Japanese has many untranslatable words, including kuidaore, or to go bankrupt because you’ve spent all your money on food and drink. But in a country where I’ve tasted the most delectable and the least palatable food of my life, it might just be a price worth paying.

© Joanna Rubery 2017

 

Why I Do What I Do

Salt flats

Sizzling black peppercorns on the burnt streets of Phnom Penh. Sun-spangled sapphire stretching off the Sardinian shore. The swish of a hundred swirling skirts at midnight in Arequipa, the sharp sting of wasabi on my Tokyo tongue, the salty force of a six-foot wave knocking me off my feet in the Tasman sea: travelling sharpens the senses, catapulting you straight into the unknown (and quite often the uncomfortable) without a seatbelt. There’s nothing like the shock of the new to make you look at home again with different eyes.

For me, it’s the unexpected moments on a journey that sear my heart and stay with me the longest: waking on the night bus, in the thinning air, to see all the stars in the universe trailing down towards the stony sand of the Atacama desert. Breathing in the mingle of five spice, flat whites, French fries and falafel on the cool streets of New York. Watching children tumbling out of church to blow bubbles like clear blossom through the apricot-stained alleyways of a small Spanish town.

But if it’s the moments that transfix you, it’s the people you meet who pull you in: the receptionist in fizzing, fairy-lit Hanoi who wants to matchmake you with passing hotel guests (“Honeymoon suite still free!”). The shoeless, switched-on ten-year-old in the shade of Angkor Wat with his canny sales pitch of “one drink for you – and one for your driver.” The tiny wisp of woman in black who shares your table in the sandy sprawl of Lima and tells you, between spoons of chicken rice, she’s returning from her husband’s funeral. The Italian soldier who recites solemnly, in the spring sun, his hand-on-heart recipe for “the best way to eat pasta”. The New Zealand surfer who stops you on the sand, bare-footed and golden-haired, and asks joyfully, “Are you saved?” The elderly Japanese man, worn with age, who shuffles over to tell you he once, many years ago, “go Rondon. Albert Haw. Ve-ry beautiful,” and starts conducting an imaginary orchestra. The Polish tour guide, who begins with the tale of the town’s war-torn history and ends, as the candles burn down over the cobbled square, with her own.

I’ve lived in seven countries so far, and I’ve long been writing stories inspired by my travels for an audience whose most common question is “Where are you going next?”

Where am I going next…?

I’ll tell you when I get there.

[Adapted from an article written for the LATAM airlines travel writing competition, March 2017]

© Joanna Rubery 2017

More competition news – Fallout

Olive branch

[I’m very happy to say I made the finals of this flash fiction competition with a ’50-word story about a hero’. I wanted to salute the small, kind gestures that transform the ordinary. Here in Japan, acknowledging another person’s humanity seems to be a way of life, even when it means reaching out to (quite possibly) the descendant of someone who was – not so long ago – The Enemy.]

https://www.writingclasses.com/contest/be-a-hero-contest-2017

Microfiction in 250 words: The Photograph

[I’m very proud of this one, which came sixth in a recent microfiction competition hosted by Grindstone Literary Services. We were asked to write about a Snapshot in 250 words.]

I step on scarlet toes (“Sorry, love!”) and breathe in sugared scent. The girls are like butterflies, flitting under frangipani blooms.

“Madame?” He’s got a walkie-talkie. “Can I help you?”

“I’m looking for my friend,” I shout, above the bass. Then I see him across the street. A tuk-tuk swerves, and misses me.

“All alone?” I ask. The beer is sharp, cutting through the evening heat.

“I’m in love,” Pete tells me, through a haze of smoke and flowers. “Not with you.”

“Just as well,” I say. “With who?”

He nods across the road. “With Nita.”

I look over – the girls are glowing neon – and back to him.

“Nita from the Good Time Garden??”

“I’m obsessed!” he says.

A boy clatters in the gutter with empty cans of paint.

“Does she know?” I ask him. Pete isn’t young.

He shakes his head. “But I’m going to give her this.”

He smooths a photograph with tar-stained fingers. She’s laughing, he’s drinking something lime.

“I’ve written to her,” he says, draining his glass. “On the back. Dutch courage!”

Then he grins, gets up, and weaves his way across.

The fan above is broken. Something scuttles by my feet.

After a while, I spot him coming back, and then I see her, I think, on the balcony, a sliver of red. She leans out and drops something. It flutters into flowers.

“I think she was surprised,” says Pete, sitting down. “We’ll see. Fancy another?”

I wonder. I wonder what to say.

© Joanna Rubery 2017

 

1001 Words: Vis-à-visa

Elephants in Siem Reap

[Update: I’m delighted to say that my story below has just been published in the glossy print May 2017 edition of Wanderlust magazine, so I’m bumping it back up the blog!]

“You have wrong visa!” shouted my new boss down the phone.

Jet-lagged, culture-shocked, and helpless in the heat, this was not what I wanted to hear. I’d come to Cambodia to teach, but I was already questioning a country that had a) no pavements and b) frogs for lunch.

“What do I do?” I asked, chasing an unknown creature under my hotel bed.

My employer sighed.

“Leave country and come back in,” she said, and hung up. Then all the lights went out.

Continue reading “1001 Words: Vis-à-visa”

Microfiction in 300 Words: Peak betrayal

Patagonia

“Is here!” shouts our guide, and we crunch over to where the snowy cliff runs out. Miles below, unheard, a glacial river splashes. The space between the pearl-white peaks is silent. The air is paper thin.

Magnífico,” I whisper. Antonio turns and smiles, but I mean him, and his dark and sparkling eyes. I hand him the water.

Peter-the-Australian is watching the sunlight fade away.

“Where are we gonna stay tonight, then?” snorts Gemma, from behind. “My bloody feet!”

Antonio unlocks a splintery shack. There’s a rich smell of Andean wood, and something like alpaca.

“I can see me breath!” says Peter, shards curling.

“No mirror?” yells Gemma, pulling off her hat. “What about my hair?” and it tumbles loose, like silk.

We spoon up soup as the night turns blue, then black. Antonio uncorks a dusty bottle and four glasses, crystallized with frost.

“Can’t get a signal here,” says Gemma, vexed, but Peter (“You millennials!”) is already dealing out a pack of cards.

“We two,” says Antonio, winking at me, “Against Gemma. And Peter.”

We’re a team. (Tonight? Maybe tonight.)

“That’s not fair!” Gemma’s protesting, glossy-lipped; but an hour later, I take another sip, play my hand – and it all falls apart. Gemma whoops.

“I’m sorry – ” I turn to Antonio, but, “Is only a game,” he replies, knocking back his glass.

In the dark heart of the night, I feel my frozen way outside. The stars are speckled right down to the ground, as if the world has tilted. I listen in, too.

From somewhere in the shack, I hear a giggle.

The dawn’s like ice.

I hand him the water, but “Gemma!” he calls, and walks away. On a far peak, I see the snow come crashing down before I hear it.

© Joanna Rubery 2017

The Beach at the End of the World

Stewart Island Harbour by Day

I had washed ashore on the beach at the end of the world.

That wind-whipped afternoon, the ferry crossing over the dire strait from Invercargill had been, I’d scrawled in my diary, “like the Pirate Ship” – we rose and fell with each wave, the floor splashing with spilled tea. After an hour, I slid down the jetty with a handful of hardy fishermen, spangled with sea salt.

“Welcome to Stewart Island,” said the captain, shaking hands from a fish crate.

In the half-light of Half Moon Bay, I held my breath. The harbour was a glassy grey, scattered with small boats, clinking in the ripples. On the far horizon, the sun was a low glow of unearthly light. I felt, as I always do, the tingle of the unknown.

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1001 Words: Niagara Flaws

Niagara Falls

Little Micky is singing a muffled Jingle Bells through her scarf as we finally pull off the highway in Niagara Falls, Ontario (pop: 78,000) after three hours of inky darkness. Then she changes the lyrics to Dunkin’ Donuts. Micky is adorably cute.

“Thanks to God, we make it in good time,” says Mr Chang from the front, blessing himself quickly.

“Michaela,” says his wife, snaking rosary beads through her twice-gloved fingers, “Why you not sing something nice about the baby Jesus?”

“Mom! Look! McDonald’s!” says young Tom, pressing his face to the cold glass.

“Niagara not far, ah?” says Mr Chang, turning to me and my boyfriend. “We blessed to live so close.”

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1001 Words: Zucchini Flowers

Cretan coast

Every now and then, a bus pulls up in the small, dusty town of Tympaki, on the olive-strewn Massara plain, and spits out a handful of surprised tourists on the street corner with “Change! Change here!” before rumbling off on its labyrinthine route. I wish I could say this happens every hour, on the chime of the bells in the Orthodox church, but I can’t be certain, because I am one of these tourists, blinking in the brightness of a Cretan afternoon.

Tympaki looks exactly as it did this morning and will do this evening, and in the silence, a moped whines by. In the “bus station” – a counter with a clock – a woman dressed entirely in black is lifting box after box over the counter in a harried way.

“What?” she says, looking at our timid group, all white arms and legs.

Continue reading “1001 Words: Zucchini Flowers”