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:
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