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”

1001 Words: Stranded in Sihanoukville

The beach at Sihanoukville

Ten minutes after take-off, our “luxury” bus from Phnom Penh rolls straight into the back of an elderly biker in shades. The old man, whose passenger is a pile of cut grass, starts to loudly demand “many doll-ar!” in compensation. Reality shimmers in the heat, and the traffic begins to flow round us like a shoal of dirty fish. There’s time for an Aussie backpacker to buy and eat a whole dish of pork noodles before we chug on, amid the honking, down the cratered road to the coast.

Continue reading “1001 Words: Stranded in Sihanoukville”