Time for Monday Musings. It’s February, it’s cold and I’m keeping myself going by thinking about holidays.
Travelling is fun. Every so often, a visit kicks all your well-honed prejudices and preconceptions sideways. I was brought up to believe the Swiss had hotelkeeping elevated to an art form, yet the most unwelcome I’ve ever felt anywhere was in a Swiss hotel.
In the same vein, I was brought up to believe that the Japanese are very formal and easily took offence, and that being a guest in their country involved following a raft of strict rules to the letter.
What we found instead were people who were proud of their country and wanted to show it off to its best advantage, who were beyond welcoming and keen to make sure we took back only good memories. We’ve had complete strangers go out of their way to see whether we needed help, hotel staff who were never too busy to answer a question (or let me practice my very limited Japanese), and people who were happy to talk to me about food.
Visiting Japan as a Vegetarian is a challenge. That’s what we were told when we decided to go on the trip. I spent the year before our trip learning Japanese, so I could have proper conversations about food when we got there. Or so I thought.
I did talk about ingredients with people who served us dinner. Often in a half-Japanese, half-English, half-point-and-click way. And the best money I’ve ever spent was my little pocket dictionary of Japanese food. Being the food nut I am, I never had so much fun making sure nobody was feeding my husband things he didn’t want to eat.
One of the items on my “must find” list was an okonomiyaki-ya, a restaurant specialising in Japanese-style pancakes. More to the point, the restaurant I wanted was in Tokyo’s Asakusa district. It came highly recommended, but almost every traveller who reviewed it pointed out how difficult it was to find. Especially when you don’t read Japanese!
Undeterred, and bolstered by an amazing day spent half on, half beside the Sumida River, replete with images of gardens, impressions from a busy temple precinct and good beer, we set off after sunset to locate the restaurant with the above sign in that warren of tiny shops and eateries that stretches out behind Tokyo’s Senso-ji temple.
And you know what? We found it. I have no idea how, but after wandering down every street and checking out the menus pasted up beside the door… we found it. And it was as fantastic as all the reviews had claimed.
We were seated at a table with a hotplate and handed everything we needed to make pancakes. Across the room, the chef stood behind the grown up version of our hotplate. I’m ready to swear he slowed down what he was doing when he caught me watching, just so I could copy the technique.
That’s something I found over and over while we were in Japan: that people pay attention. Whether it’s the chef making sure I knew how to mix ingredients with chopsticks or use two spatulas to flip a pancake, or the wait staff at our hotel watching me trade the salmon on my husband’s plate for my vegetables and ensuring he wasn’t offered any fish the next morning… it’s those little things that made us feel welcome, and looked after.
As for the question whether shrimps were okay? Yes, the question was asked – once – when I pointed out carefully that my husband didn’t eat either meat or fish. It made me smile as cliches often do, but since I had no idea what the word for seafood was, I simply shook my head and that took care of the matter. “Cheesu” I understood. And that was just fine.