Words to the wise

In the past week I interviewed about a dozen Japanese people form various walks of life to find out what advice they would give to a foreigner who was about to visit their country forthe first time. Here’s what they told me.

“THERE ARE NO LONGER ANY SAMURAI IN JAPAN.”

In addition to this quote, they also told me to mention that no one wears a chonmage topknot any more. Also, no one carries a sword. Several of them mentioned that kimonos are not everyday apparel — and they haven’t been for a long, long time. At first it surprised me that this would be such frequently repeated piece of advice. However, some of these people have actually had foreign visitors who were disappointed not to find hordes of kimono-wearers thronging the local McDonald’s. I suppose the kimono-clad Japanese is a lot like the trigger-happy American, the Briton in a bowler, or the Australian who has a kangaroo fetch his morning newspaper. If you look hard enough you might actually find such people, but they are not typical or even common. In fact, that guy with the kangaroo might not exist at all. But speaking of stereotypes….

“MOST JAPANESE THINK ALL WHITE PEOPLE SPEAK ENGLISH”

A similar sentiment is that “Most Japanese think all foreigners are American.” Some non-Americans and non-Anglophones are understandably annoyed by this attitude. One Frenchman recently wrote a Japanese magazine article on this topic that was illustrated with his picture. In it, he is wearing a scowl and a T-shirt that says, “Je ne suis pas Americain. Watashi wa Amerika-jin ja nai.” Not long ago a Canadian tourist stopped a Japanese man on the street to ask for directions. When they parted a few moments later, the Canadian handed the Japanese a Canadian flag lapel pin as a token of gratitude. He apparently had a pocket full of them just for this purpose. I wasn’t there, but I know about this little incident because the Japanese guy was so impressed that he wrote a letter to the editor of the Yomiuri Shimbun (reprinted in the Daily Yomiuri) in which he praised this fabulous example of grass-roots diplomacy.
So that’s one way to deal with it.

“TRY TO SPEAK JAPANESE”

This is excellent advice. Don’t let your lack of linguistic expertise stop you from taking it. In any country, you can go surprisingly far even if you know just a little of the language. If you know more, you can go even further. If you don’t know any you won’t go anywhere. Several people complained of having met foreigners who assume that all Japanese people speak English. Well, they don’t. (And those who do speak English never use the word “honorable,” as in “Visit my honorable home for a cup of honorable tea.”)
One woman — who speaks excellent English — told me how she watched some Anglophone foreigners struggling to place an order at the local Wendy’s hamburger restaurant. “It took them a very long time,” she said, “and they only got potatoes.” I asked if she had offered to help them.
“No.”
This might be because…

“JAPANESE ARE SHY — MAYBE.”

Several people told me that foreigners shouldn’t be offended when Japanese refuse to talk to them because “Japanese are shy.” One man amended that to say that Japanese are shy only when speaking English. This seems pretty reasonable. Speaking to strangers in a foreign language will produce a “shy” reaction in any country on earth. Still, some people are shy — or worse — even when one approaches them in their native language. I once had an old woman wave me off with a look of pure disgust when I said “Sumimasen” (“Excuse me”) as a prelude to asking her for directions. On the other hand, I once had a postman leave his vehicle and walk more than a block off his route just to point me the right way. I’m happy to say that the usual reaction is closer to his end of the spectrum than to hers. So, maybe the Japanese should give themselves a little credit. They aren’t as shy as some of them think they are.

“DON’T BE SURPRISED….”

One lady told suggested that foreigners should be told, “Don’t be surprised at the bad looks of high school students. They are very ugly, the most ugly in world history.” This struck me as rather harsh, so I asked her to elaborate. She told me that she disapproved of the heavy makeup and bleached hair currently in vogue among high school girls. I should stress that this is her opinion, not mine. Still, while we are on the topic of high school fashion, I might mention that the skirts worn by many high school girls, even in winter, are too short. It’s not unusual to see girls walking up a flight of stairs (such as at a train station) with one or both hands covering the lower portion of their buttocks because their skirts simply aren’t adequate to do the job in that situation. I actually feel a little sorry for girls who are driven to such an extreme. It’s a textbook case of fashion before function.

“ANNOUNCEMENTS ON THE TRAIN ARE HARD TO UNDERSTAND.”

Most of the Japanese people who were present when this remark was made said that it was often difficult even for them to understand such announcements. Some things are the same all over the world.

“PLEASE TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES IN THE HOUSE.”

This is another piece of advice that was repeated several times. Prince Charles was once photographed striding into a tatami room in heavy black shoes. My Japanese boss showed me this picture about eight years ago and told me that it created quite a sensation when it had been first published years earlier. Apparently, the rest of us still have a lot to make up for, so watch your step.

CULTURE CRASH

Finally, one man pointed out that Japanese bow in situations in which Westerners shake hands. To be accommodating, Japanese meeting foreigners for the first time often shake hands and bow simultaneously. Therefore, he warned me, “Take care not to hit your head.”
Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.


Talking and Eating in an Izakaya

WHAT TO SAY

Certain words should never be translated. “Tofu” is one classic example. In older English-language books on Asian cuisine, you will often see this economical, healthy, filling, versatile, wonderful food described as “bean curd.”

Ick. Who wants to eat “bean curd” ? No one that I know. Beans are unexciting to begin with, and “curd” makes it sound like something went wrong with them. Can the West really be blamed for taking so long to catch on to tofu?

Now, at long last, tofu is widely appreciated and is easily available in Western grocery stores. Also, “tofu” itself is an accepted English word. The linguistic change was necessary for the culinary change to take place. People generally don?t want to eat things that can’t be described nicely.

“Daikon” is a word that has begun moving into English in the same way. The standard “Japanese radish” translation just doesn’t do it justice. Western radishes are tiny, spicy, red balls, while a daikon is a pale, mild vegetable that is about the same size and shape as a child’s leg. “Daikon” is not yet part of most English-speakers? everyday vocabulary, but it is making more frequent appearances in English dictionaries and cookbooks.

However, at least “bean curd” and “Japanese radish” give the listener a rough idea of what the speaker is talking about. I’ve heard utterly baffling translations of some other words that should never be translated at all. The most common of these is “gobo.” Gobo is a long, brown, woody root vegetable with a crunchy texture and a zingy flavor. It is usually cut into matchstick pieces and marinated or saut仔d. Most Japanese people who want to tell a foreigner about gobo do not describe it in this manner. (And I can hardly blame them.) Instead, they whip out their dictionaries, look up “gobo,” smile, and say:
“Burdock.”
Huh? I’ll admit that burdock is an English word, but I have yet to meet a single native speaker who really knows what it is. If I were walking through the woods and saw a burdock plant, I’d probably pass it by obliviously. By contrast, if someone handed me a dish of gobo and a glass of beer, I’d know EXACTLY what to do next.

Burdock is just not a familiar concept in the West. So, if you want to discuss the Japanese uses of this plant, it is probably best to use the Japanese word. Even if you are speaking English.

WHERE TO SAY IT

The best place to go for a dish of gobo and a glass of beer is an izakaya. This is fitting, because “izakaya” is another word that can’t be translated. People sometimes call it a “bar” or a “pub” but these words don’t do it justice. It’s true that izakayas serve alcohol, usually in a wide array of drinks. However, that’s not the best reason to go to one. The real appeal of an izakaya is the food.

Izakayas generally have an extensive menu. At Nanda-Kanda, a mom and pop izakaya near my apartment, the name and price of each item is written by hand on a strip of paper, and these strips of paper cover every inch of available wall space. At Jinpachi, the chain-store izakaya I frequent, there is a lavishly illustrated menu many pages long — and lots of strips of paper on the wall to boot.

People usually visit izakayas in groups. Izakaya servings are usually very small. That way, everyone can nibble a dozen different items while drinking their beer. Dishes range from simple French fries to elaborate assortments of sashimi.

One of the most popular categories of izakaya food is yakitori. Strictly speaking, this is grilled chicken on a stick, but it can be made with chicken and vegetables or even pork or beef. One form of yakitori popular among foreigners is tsukune, which is chicken meatballs. The pork and beef used in yakitori is usually organ meat, which some Westerners find to be a turn-off. The timid might want to work their way up to that by trying kashira, which is facial muscles. It’s muscle tissue like “standard” meat, but it’s very tender and might help one to gradually widen one’s horizons.

My own particular favorite kind of yakitori is nankotsu, which is chicken cartilage. It can be skewered and grilled by itself, or skewered together with chicken meat. Nankotsu can also be chopped up and batter-fried. Murasaki, another big izakaya chain, is offering fried nankotsu with a sweet mustard dipping sauce as one of its summer specials. Either way it’s crunchy and delicious, high in calcium and — unless fried — low in fat. But for some reason, my “good tasting and good for you” sales pitch has won few converts among my fellow Westerners. Don’t ask me why.

Luckily, the endless variety of a typical izakaya menu means that not everyone has to like everything. There are usually plenty of items that most visitors will enjoy, such as salads, buttered potatoes, spinach with bacon, and mini-pizzas. Gyoza and yakisoba are also crowd-pleasers. Gyoza are little dumplings filled with minced pork. Yakisoba is grilled noodles with cabbage and a little meat.

Japanese fried chicken is always a hit. It’s juicy and boneless with a thin, crisp crust and it is served with a lemon wedge. If you prefer, you can have squid legs cooked the same way.

Japanese food is highly seasonal, and the izakaya menus reflect that. While gyoza and potatoes are available year-round, other dishes come and go. Last winter an izakaya called Big had a “Nabe Matsuri” or Stew Festival. For a very cheap price, they would actually cook a pot of stew on a portable burner on your table. All sorts of stews were available — beef, seafood, kimchi, you name it. But now, in the heat of the summer, there is no stew on Big’s menu. Good thing, too.

One popular summer special is cucumbers. These are very cheap, very plain, very light, and just perfect for summer. The two most popular cucumber dishes are ume-kyu and moro-kyu. Both are elaborately sliced cucumbers that may be dipped in a paste made of plums (in the case of ume-kyu) or barley (in the case of moro-kyu). Chilled noodle dishes are also big in summer, as is anything featuring tororo, a viscous, somewhat foamy taro paste. This is sometimes eaten in combination with tuna sashimi.

No “bar” or “pub” that I’ve eve seen has a menu even remotely like this. “Izakaya” is a category by itself.

ONE LAST WORD

When you eat at an izakaya, there’s one more untranslatable word you should keep in mind. Otsumami. This is a little hors d’oeuvre that will be served with your first round of drinks. It will be in a dish that could fit in the palm of your hand, and the dish will most likely be filled with some kind of specialty salad that is not on the menu. It could be chopped lotus root in moist black hijiki seaweed. It could be minced chicken with peas. It could be a mayonnaise-based pasta salad. If you’re lucky, it might even be that long-awaited dish of sauted gobo with sesame seeds.

Only one thing is sure. You won’t have asked for it, and you will be billed for it. Luckily for you, it will taste very good and it will turn out to be just the thing to accompany your first drink while you wait for all the delicious food that you did order.

So, when in an izakaya, do as the Japanese do. Eat it. And like it!

Kampai!

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.


I Love Yu

The Japanese have a worldwide reputation as hard workers, but something that I love about them is their ability to relax. The most perfect example of this is the Japanese bath.

I’ve been an aficionado of baths ever since my teens, when I got into the habit (which I still enjoy) of settling into the tub with a good book and soaking the evening away. I made quite a ritual of it, starting out in an empty tub with my back against the cold metal, then letting the hot water — as hot as I could stand — slowly rise around me, feeling it creep up my dry skin as I read my book, reading on and on until the water cooled off, and then draining it away and staying right where I was, still reading, until I was comfortably dry. Not only was it a very sensual experience, but I made my way through a good chunk of the Fairfax County Public Library in the process. It was just one of the advantages of growing up in a home without television.

That’s why I’m such a know-it-all today.

The Japanese also appreciate a good bath. In fact, bathing is so highly thought of that it is often a community experience. Families bathe together, co-workers bathe together, friends go off on vacations that revolve around bathing, and neighborhood baths are still common. Based on my own experiences here, I’ve divided Japanese baths into three categories: functional, fancy, and fabulous.

1. FUNCTIONAL: Neighborhood Baths

You can find a neighborhood bath by wandering around a residential section of a city until you spot an industrial smokestack that looks out of place among the houses and apartment blocks. This will either be a bath or a garbage incinerator. The local bath in my old neighborhood in Kawaguchi was a bit of both; it was heated in part by burning scrapwood. Admission is cheap — usually around 300 yen.

Upon entering, men go to one side and women to the other. Often the two sides are divided by a wall that doesn’t quite reach the ceiling, so that one bath attendant, usually an extremely old person, can keep an eye on both sides at once from a slightly elevated seat. On each side, in addition to a giant tile tub, there are rows of very low mirrors along the walls, with a faucet beneath each mirror. Squatting on tiny stools in front of the mirrors, bathers wash themselves off before getting into the nearby tub. (Since everyone bathes together in the same large basin, it would be very poor etiquette to get in while still dirty.) Usually, the water faucets are augmented with a shower head on the end of a hose; if not, you’ll just have to dump water over yourself with a plastic bucket. This is usually more fun anyway, and it’s always an option.

Once clean, ease into the tub and stew your tired muscles and bones for as long as you like.

2. FANCY: Healthy Lands

The neighborhood bath usually has only one tub. More elaborate bath complexes can be found in most large towns or suburban areas. These complexes are a bit more expensive, but they have a numerous specialized tubs for you to soak in. Usually the water in each tub is infused with a substance — herb, mineral, or gas — that is said to have medicinal properties. This is why they are sometimes referred to as “healthy lands.” Here are two examples.

A. Yuami no Land

When I lived in Chiba several years ago I became a regular customer at an establishment called Yuami no Land, which had a swirling hot bath, a still hot bath, a sauna, and a cold bath. In addition, there was a bubbling “radon bath” in a separately ventilated room that resembled a greenhouse. Finally, there was a rotenburo, which is what really hooked me on the place.

A rotenburo is simply an outdoor or open-air bath. It is the greatest achievement of Japanese culture. A long soak in a good rotenburo is the most relaxing experience I’ve ever known. Whole resorts have been built around nicely-situated rotenburos, such as the one I visited on an office trip to the shore of the Izu Peninsula a few years ago. Soaking together with my fellow employees, I watched the sun sinking over Izu Bay, throwing the shadows of jagged rocks across the waves.

But a rotenburo doesn’t have to be situated in legendary surroundings to be effective. Last fall, when the stress of life had gotten me down, I took a vacation to the Tohoku (northern Honshu). A cold rain was falling when I arrived in the small city of Tsuruoka, a town that shuts down after dark. I spent my first night at a hotel that had a rotenburo on the roof. As the rain beat on my head, arms, and shoulders, I stretched out the rest of my body beneath the hot, swirling water and contemplated the Halloween-colored lights of Mister Donut, the brightest spot in town, nine stories below and four blocks away. All of my tensions dissolved.

But it was the rotenburo at Yuami no Land that first got me hooked. It was in an alley between the bath house and a clothing store, but the alley had been paved with stones and screened off with bamboo. The bath itself was built of volcanic rock, and it had a teabag the size of a throw pillow floating in it. This teabag was full of herbs that gave the water a green color and a spicy fragrance. In the evenings, I enjoyed moving from the sauna to the shocking chill of the cold bath, and then into the rotenburo where my skin would tingle as my cold-constricted capillaries came back to life in the warm water. I would do this again and again as the sky above the alley got darker and the stars came out. Sometimes a breeze would find its way down the alley, and sometimes not. When I was thoroughly cooked, I would stumble off to my favorite ramen shop for some hot noodles and cold beer and then just barely make it home in time to collapse onto my futon for some of the soundest sleep I have ever known. Ahhhhhhh…..

B. Yu Yu Land

A visit to Yuami no Land costs about 1000 yen these days. In the town of Kawagoe, my current home, there is a more elaborate and expensive bath complex called Yu Yu Land. Admission is 1700 yen, which is more than even I am normally willing to pay for a bath, but in the name of research I recently checked it out.

For that price, I won’t be going back, but it was immediately apparent that the owners of the place had made the effort to set up a first-class bath. The decor is vaguely Roman, with fluted columns along the walls and fancy molding on the ceiling. There were six different waters to soak in, along with a sauna, steam room, and showers. One of the showers, off by itself in a cylindrical stall, was called a “Body Shower.” I thought that every shower was a body shower, but this one was different. In addition to the large showerhead high on the wall, there were fifty smaller nozzles lower down that simultaneously hit one’s torso from fifty different angles. It would have been pretty exciting if only the water pressure hadn’t been divided by fifty also. Oh, well.

The main reason I go to a bath is to soak, though, so that’s exactly what I did, starting out in the “High Power Bath.” This is a large circular bath a meter deep. In the center there is a thick, tile-covered column from which numerous powerful jets of water burst out into the tub. There was a sign posted above this bath announcing that the “water of the day” was aloe. The water had a faint, pleasant scent, and was colored blue. Bright blue. Two Thousand Flushes blue. I got in anyway and enjoyed the jets for a while.

The next bath was fairly large, but it was set off in an alcove by itself, with slate walls and red brick columns. The bath itself was made of cedar, and the water flowing into it was filtered through a box of rocks. There was a rather detailed sign explaining the supposed health benefits of these rocks, but I couldn’t read enough of it to know any more than that it was someone in ancient China who first thought of the idea.

There was also a radon bath, with bubbles of that alarming gas percolating up from a grate in the floor of the tub. Why these are so popular in Japan I’ll never know, but I’ve always avoided them like the plague. Today, though, in the name of journalism, I finally settled in for a soak. I sniffed some of the bubbles, but there was no odor. I looked at an ominous sign that said something about “washing your body thoroughly” on the way into or out of this bath. After about two minutes all I felt was nervous, so I got out again.

Nearby was a bath with which I felt more at home. I’m a longtime fan of the chef Paul Prudhomme, and this was a herb bath that looked and smelled just like one of those rich vegetable stocks that are the basis of so many of his recipes. It was dark brown in color and earthy in smell — very heavy on celery. A canvas bag full of vegetable matter was tethered to one corner, and a sign on the wall explained the contents. Judging by the heavy use of furigana, the herbs therein were as unfamiliar to most Japanese as they were to me.

There was also a waterfall bath in which I sat to have my shoulders beaten by warm water falling quite heavily from the ceiling. All of these baths were warm or hot, averaging about 41 degrees C (106 degrees F) according to the digital thermometers on the walls.

The last bath was called, innocently enough, the “Water Bath.” This is more descriptive than it sounds. In Japanese, water is “mizu” and hot water is “yu.” They are completely different words, and I’ve met a very small minority of Japanese people who regard them as completely different concepts. These folks get all flustered when I talk about “hot water” — even in English. To them this term is a very basic contradiction, like “iron feathers.” People normally bathe in yu, but it is pleasant to immerse oneself in mizu now and then just for contrast. The mizu in this particular tub was 16 degrees C (60 degrees F).

Normally, I like cold baths. I like the shock of getting in, and I like slowly getting used to it. I like to watch goosebumps appear on my thighs. I like it when my body gets so cold that I can feel the air moving in and out of my lungs just by noticing the temperature difference. But I don’t like bathing at 16 degrees C. That’s just too damn cold, even for me.

3. FABULOUS: Hot Spring Resorts

The next step up from a local bath complex is a full-blown resort built around an onsen (hot spring). There are literally hundreds of these resorts in Japan, and some of them are quite famous. Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma Prefecture is one of them. It’s a ski-and-soak town in the mountains, about two and a half hours north of Tokyo by car. A Japanese friend of mine, who is also a bath fan, drove me up there one Sunday in March.

We went to two of the town’s many baths. The first one was Otaki-no-Yu, a name which means “Hot Water from the Big Falls.” It was a large modern complex situated along the banks of a steaming creek. Admission was only 800 yen. Because it was Sunday there were probably fifty men in the bath (and presumably as many women on their side), but the place was so large that it didn’t seem very crowded. There was a sauna with an accompanying cold bath, and also a very large indoor hot bath fed by the spring. The indoor area had glass walls giving a view of a terrace which had several more baths. One side of the terrace sloped down to the creek while the other was a hillside on which a large artificial waterfall had been built. On the highest level of the terrace there was a rock-lined oval rotenburo fed by very hot water that boiled directly out of the earth. It could probably seat more than a dozen people with elbow room to spare, but there were never more than four or five in it at a time. At one end of this bath was a two-foot waterfall that spilled into a second, kidney-shaped rotenburo that was almost as large. In this one the water was not quite as hot. This bath fed yet another waterfall that led into a third rotenburo. This one, where my friend and I spent most of our time, was in a deep and winding rocky trench about four feet wide and about 35 feet long. The water here was no longer hot, but still very warm. We had perfect rotenburo weather — cool and breezy, with a bright blue sky dappled with puffy white clouds. We sat athwart this artificial river with our feet on the boulders for a very long time, talking about this and that. “Goku-raku,” my friend taught me. “Perfect bliss.”

Otaki-no-Yu also had a basement area that was open to men or women for alternating two-hour periods throughout the day. The women had it when we arrived, but after it opened to men we went down to check it out. The floor was made of tiles that looked like, and may in fact have been, the tops of wooden posts driven into the ground. Sunk directly into this floor were six square or rectangular tubs of varying sizes and varying temperatures. In the dimness of this underground room, one of them had water that seemed to glow, illuminated by a shaft of sunlight that slanted down through the steam from a single window high on the wall. Away from the window, there was a spot where you could sit on the floor beneath a thin stream of water falling from the ceiling. Nearby, there were two old-fashioned steam boxes. There was a hole in the top of each box for the occupant’s head to poke through, and they had slanted fronts that opened up like cellar doors. They were built entirely of cedar wood. When we got into them we discovered that they had been built with the Japanese physique of a previous generation in mind. We both had to scrunch up to fit inside, but the cedar gave the steam a nice smell.

After Otaki-no-Yu we walked through town to central plaza called Yubatake, or “Field of Hot Water.” The Japanese have many words for “field” and this one implies a cultivated field. This is appropriate since Yubatake is where they “harvest” the hot water for many of the town’s baths. There is a large boiling spring at one end of it in which all of the rocks are coated with yellow sulfur. From this area some of the water runs down a gradual rocky slope, giving off steam and killing everything it touches. There is no plant life among these rocks, not even a speck of moss. Most of the water, though, goes into a chain of old wooden filtration boxes that are elevated a few feet above the rocky ground. This series of boxes runs for about the length of a city block, and then all of the water is dumped over the edge of a ten-foot cliff into a large rocky pool where — voila! — there is no visual evidence of sulfur in the water. Olfactory evidence remains. The fall keeps the pool churning, and there is steam billowing off of it constantly. This hellish landscape, about 100 meters long and perhaps 15 wide, is encircled by a balustraded sidewalk with park benches and gazebos.

We browsed the surrounding souvenir shops and had lunch in a restaurant nearby. My lunch included an “onsen tamago,” an egg that had been cooked in the spring. Perhaps because the water is not quite boiling, the egg cooks very slowly, with the strange result of a nearly-solid yolk floating in a runny white that resembles semen. You’re supposed to crack the egg into a cup and flavor it with a dash of sweetened soy sauce. It’s not bad, but I wouldn’t go out of my way for another one.

After lunch, we headed for a second onsen on the other side of town, Sai-no-Kawara. This name means “Underworld Riverbed” and the area we had to walk through to get there did resemble a riverbed somewhat. It was a steep-sided green valley with a floor of lifeless rock. Scattered across it were several hot springs of various dull colors, each with its own name. The one called Oni-no-Chadama (“Devil’s Kettle”) supposedly makes a gurgling noise that stops when you walk near it, and then starts up when you walk away. I think that the trampling feet of countless tourists have worn it out. We couldn’t hear a thing, no matter how far away we got.
Sai-no-Kawara onsen itself is much simpler than Otaki-no-Yu, but more impressive even so. It has only one bath, but this is a giant rotenburo the size of a lake. It is probably 40 feet wide at its widest, and nearly 150 feet long. It curves along the hillside, so it is impossible to see the whole thing at one time. There’s a small island in the middle to sit on. The bath is about thigh-deep and the bottom is paved with flagstones. The temperature ranges from warm at the locker-room side to absolutely scalding at the far end where the spring feeds in. Once again we had perfect rotenburo weather, even though conditions had changed drastically while we were having lunch. Snow was falling heavily, and a cold wind was blowing. We went as far toward the hot end as we dared, and alternated between sitting down to boil ourselves and then standing up to let the wind dry our freshly poached skin as we leaned against the boulders of the hillside.

The wind was often fierce, and then we would just stay in the water up to our necks and watch the branches of trees as they thrashed around on the valley walls.

We were at it for nearly two hours. Goku-raku, nee.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.


Aqua-Abattoir : The Tsukiji Fish Market

If you want to wake up in a city that never sleeps, then don’t come to Tokyo. The big stores all lower their steel shutters by 9:00 PM. Most of the city’s restaurants follow suit by 10:00 or 11:00. There are all-night bars to be found, but the emphasis is on “all night.” That’s because the rail system drifts to a halt around midnight, making it difficult for late drinkers to go home. After that hour, this great city is dark, quiet, and still. Except at the Tsukiji fish market. Last winter a friend and I paid a visit there at 4:00AM.

CHAOS IN THE NIGHT

It was like stumbling onto a secret military base on the eve of a major invasion. The darkness was suddenly hacked apart by dozens of sweeping headlights. The air was filled with the snort and rumble and smell of diesel engines. Thousands of boots trampled the ground. Boxes made of Styrofoam, plastic, cardboard, and wood were tossed from hand to hand by muscular arms. Hooded bulbs swung from overhead wires. Huge crates were hoisted suddenly aloft. The warning squeal of reversing trucks could be heard from all directions. Dozens of poker-faced men and women raced flatbed trolleys through the chaos at breakneck speed. And this was just for starters. We were on the outer edge of a vast complex that covers several city blocks. It employs at least 15,000 people and includes 1,600 individual businesses. Tokyo has a lot of mouths to feed, and most of those mouths are partial to fish. The Tsukiji fish market handles about 2.5 million pounds of seafood every day, or more than 1.1 million kilograms.

LOOKING DINNER IN THE EYE

The place is not set up as a tourist attraction, but we found ourselves ignored as long as we were able to dodge the hurtling forklifts and swinging blades. Every corner we turned led to a startling new scene. On one large counter hundreds of brazen octopi mooned us with all eight cheeks. Nearby, a sinister collection of 2-meter knives stood upright in a barrel of ruddy water. In a dark alcove, shadowy figures were shucking mussels as big as my shoes, totally silent but for the scrape and slurp of their knives in the shells. Most of the market is a maze of narrow passageways, but in one open area there were about a dozen brawny silver fish, each a meter long, laid out on a wooden pallet. As we examined them, one of them rolled a big black shiny eye at me. Standing over him, I wondered how he must see me. I decided not to dwell on it. A man who had dumped a bucket of live eels onto a metal table was grabbing them one after another, cutting their throats, and tossing them into another bucket to squirm their last. One arm grabbed and tossed while the other arm chopped, and neither arm ever seemed to be at rest. As we walked past his table, a flying drop of eel blood struck the back of my hand. After a moment’s hesitation, I licked it off. It was salty and surprisingly warm.

A PLAYFUL KILLER

Someone raced past us with a cart full of flapping bream. We followed him until he dropped it off at another metal table half a block away. There was a slender young man waiting for them in the standard Tsukiji dress. This consisted of sturdy work pants and shirt, Wellington boots, and a white towel. The towel could be tied around one’s head, draped around one’s neck, or tucked into the waist of one’s pants, but all the guys at Tsukiji had one. Along with a blade. These came in endless variety. In this man’s case it was a big knife with which he validated the breams’ tickets to the next round of the karma lottery. A bream (tai in Japanese) is a large, roughly square fish, somewhat like an heirloom Bible that has grown fins and a tail. Still, our man handled these scaly blocks of muscle with seeming ease. Tossing one onto the table, he cut its tail half off with one stroke. Turning the tail aside, he bent double the bream’s body with both hands, ejecting a powerful jet of fluid that hit the floor three or four meters away. After watching him dispatch four or five fish this way, my friend and I suddenly leapt aside as a jet of bream juice shot in our direction. Judging by the playful grin on the bream-killer’s face, this was no accident. We smiled back at him but decided to move on before he got bigger ideas.

TUNA HELL

Finally, we came to the site of the daily tuna auction. On a concrete pier on the riverward side of the market, hundreds of gutted and deep-frozen tuna carcasses were laid out in neat rows. None of them were small, but a few were truly colossal. All of them had red numbers spray-painted directly onto their sides, and most of them were cold enough to give off a white mist which crept along the floor. At one end of the pier there were a few dozen black marlins laid out in similar state. Bidders moved among the fish in the standard Wellington and white towel outfits, but he blades that they carried were iron hooks on short wooden poles. They used these to tilt the fish up to examine their lower sides, or to hack out little bits of frozen flesh. Once defrosted between the bidders’ busily working fingertips, these morsels could be tasted to see if the tuna was really as good as it looked. At one point two bidders swung their hooks at each other, but the fight was broken up by bystanders before blood was spilled. Did they both want the same fish, or was it something more personal? I can’t say. You don’t ask too many questions of an angry man with an iron hook. The auctioneers, like auctioneers in many parts of the world, spoke in a rapid musical patter that only the initiated could understand. The bidders wore baseball caps with plastic badges that identified the store or restaurant they represented. As they quietly signaled their bids, the auctioneer made a note of who got what. The auction was remarkably sedate, especially compared to the hubbub in the rest of the market.

WHERE DO ALL THE FISH GO?

We left Tsukiji on foot after several hours. Most of the crustaceans, mollusks, and fish leave by truck. Luckily, I knew where to catch up with some of them. In my next column, I’ll tell you about some of my favorite places to enjoy Japanese cuisine … including lots of seafood.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.


Pancakes Must be Served in the Proper Context

In Japan, customer service is an art. Literally. At a donut shop near where I work, the ladies behind the counter use highly ritualized gestures to tell their customers where to go. Your coffee is over there, one of them will say, her arm floating in that direction like a willow branch on a breeze. And please pay over here. When several donut ladies get going at once, it’s like watching a ballet behind the counter.

Likewise, my haircuts often turn operatic.
“I’m shampooing now,” the shampoo boy intones, working his fingers into my scalp.
“Onegaishimasu,” the mostly female staff choruses in nasal soprano.
“I’m cutting now,” another staff member sings out.
“Onegaishimasu, ” the chorus echoes. The song goes on all day.

Like many serious art forms, Japanese customer service is governed by strict rules. So strict, in fact, that the charm I usually feel here can sometimes give way to aggravation.

There is a scene in the movie “Falling Down” in which a madman played by Michael Douglas flies into a homicidal rage because a fast-food restaurant refuses to serve him breakfast. Breakfast ends at 10:00, the manager tells him, and it is now 10:02.

American audiences love this scene for two reasons. First, they know that the madman’s reaction is truly extreme. Second, and more importantly, they know that the manager is also wrong. By refusing to bend the rules even slightly, he missed out on an easy chance to make a customer happy. Viewers sympathize with the madman’s frustration because they recognize what the manager did as bad customer service.

In Japan, however, such service is normal. Rules are rules, and they must be obeyed — even at the cost of customer happiness. I have observed this attitude in a number of Japanese businesses, but for today I will stick with restaurants.

One day last summer, for example, I went to my favorite local 24-hour restaurant for breakfast at 5:00 AM. The sun had come up around 4:00 AM (this is normal for the Kanto in summer) and was well above the roofs of nearby buildings when the waitress handed me a dinner menu. After glancing over the steaks, pizza, and curry pictured there, I asked for a breakfast menu. She informed me that breakfast began at 6:00 AM. I pointed out the window at the sun and remarked that it was morning now.
She was not impressed.

Having nothing better to do at 5:00 AM, I ordered a cup of coffee and drank refills for an hour. After that, she finally presented me with a breakfast menu.

This restaurant could seat well over 100 people, and at that hour there were only four or five customers present. The kitchen can hardly have been too busy for someone to throw some bacon and eggs into a pan. Still, the rules say that breakfast starts at 6:00.
Rules are rules, and they must be obeyed.

This restaurant has a wonderful breakfast consisting of juice, coffee, sausage, bacon, eggs, a small salad, and a choice of pancakes or toast. I always ask for the pancakes, but one morning I was served toast by mistake. When I pointed this out to the waitress, she was frantically apologetic.

I imagined that after she finished telling me how sorry she was, she would go and get me some pancakes. This is how the situation would be handled at any restaurant in America.

Not so in Japan. To my amazement, she actually took my breakfast away from me — all of it! Instead of the wrong breakfast, I now had no breakfast at all. About ten minutes later she came back with another platter, but this one included pancakes instead of toast. Everything else, it appeared, had been remade from scratch.

In the US, it is unheard of for a restaurant to take food away from a customer. If the wrong item is delivered, the customer is allowed to keep it, and gets the correct item besides. Here in Japan, the waitress went to great lengths to give me a meal that looked exactly like the one pictured in the menu. At the same time, she missed an easy chance to please a customer by giving a little something extra — a piece of toast that I’m sure wound up in the trash. It would have cost the restaurant nothing.

American standards of customer service can vary greatly. Sometimes service is poor, and sometimes it is excellent. In every business, though, going the extra mile is considered the ideal. If you can do something extra to make your customers happy, you should do it — even if the rules don’t require it.

Our language reflects this. In addition to “go the extra mile” we use phrases like “throw in a little something extra,” “lagniappe, ” “baker’s dozen,” “the customer is always right,” and even “the customer is king.”

Pleasing your customers, especially if it can be done at little or no cost, is always a top priority in American business. In Japan, following the rules as precisely as possible seems to be the top priority.
American service is dynamic.
Japanese service is dependable.

Usually, the rules work. The standard level of service is probably a bit higher in Japan than it is in America. But if Japanese service never falls below a certain level, it never rises above it either.

In an ideal world, somewhere between Japan and the US, rules are rules, and the customer is king.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.