In Japan, plastic models of food are in restaurant windows, nearly every menu is full of photos and residents learn English in school.
It’s a good thing, or I may have gone hungry. I’m decent at eating with chopsticks, but I’m horrible at speaking Japanese.
Kiwanis International Convention was in Chiba, a city outside Tokyo, in late July. I got to go, along with Dorothy Shirk and Jim Smith from the Goshen Noon Kiwanis Club. Jim’s wife, Marilyn, and my spouse, Bethany, also came along.
Chef and television star Anthony Bourdain says going to Tokyo is life-changing, like doing acid.
I don’t yet know if that’s true, but I knew I’d eat well.
I knew the level of sushi available in Japan, even at the low-end shops, would probably blow me away. It did.
I knew there was more than rice, which is technically what sushi refers to. The fish is a whole other thing. It’s so fresh that the texture and flavors are pure and clean in a way that’s simply tough to explain to someone who jokes that they call it bait where they’re from.
In any culture, food that is prized gets extra care and attention. In Japan, rice and fresh vegetables or seafood get that love and attention.
At the Tsukiji Fish Market, 120 tourists gather before 4:30 a.m. six mornings a week. You arrive early to get a spot or risk not getting one. When Shirk and I arrived at 4:15 one morning, the waiting room was three-fourths full.
Shortly before 6 a.m., we were escorted through a market that had been awake for hours. Men wore rubber boots and zipped around on small carts. In a nearby building, more men gathered to bid on giant frozen tuna.
We were there for the tuna auction, where buyers purchase the big fish for restaurants and others who use it. They do so following longheld traditions — ringing a bell to start an auction, the auctioneer bowing deeply before and after a sale. All this happens in the largest seafood market and one of the largest wholesale markets in the world.
After watching big fish being sold, we spied them being cut with bandsaws and then headed out of the busy market area to nearby streets where small shops sold vegetables, seaweed and the fresh seafood that had just passed through the wholesale market.
We found a small restaurant — one of about 80,000 in Tokyo if you believe the guidebooks — and ordered rice and fresh fish. An elderly sushi chef slowly and calmly crafted a bowl for each of us, mine with pale, pink fatty tuna, bright red tuna and sea urchin.
And then we ate some of the best seafood we’ve ever had anywhere. I’ve had fresher fish. I haven’t had much that’s been prepared with such care.
It was 8 a.m. Breakfast was done. My nerves were jangling from all the sights, sounds and tastes. It was a rich tourist experience from start to finish and one that could be different by the time I’d ever get back. There’s talk of building a new seafood market to replace this one that has been operating much as it has since the 1920s.
Great meals are about more than food. They’re about story, experience and companionship, too. My wife was traveling with a friend elsewhere in Japan, having her own adventures and testifying to her own sushi experiences. We didn’t share this one, as we have so many others over the years. But it was rich nonetheless.
I shared this one with Shirk, a veteran traveler. The night before, we’d shared another at Sushi Fujno, a small shop near our hotel in Chiba. There, I told the chef, “Osusume.”
That meant I wanted what he recommended. I was in his skilled hands.
So for about an hour, he made sushi and put it in front of me. I’m told I had my happy food face.
There were pieces that he fired briefly with a butane torch. There was fresh tuna and even a butterflied mushroom.
It was glorious and cost about $30. I would have paid far more. I felt lucky and happy and full.
I kept getting hungry. It’s among what I do best. I kept eating.
There were hotel breakfasts with grilled fish, miso soup, and seaweed and pickled plums to put on white rice.
There was a conveyor belt sushi restaurant where green tea came out of what looked like a water dispenser and the young woman counted our plates when we were done so she knew what to charge us.
There was a Japanese baseball game where we sat among the spirited fans who had a song for every player on the home team and chanted them along to drums and a trumpet. I ate mandarin oranges on shaved ice and some fried chicken on a stick.
And there was Ichiran ramen shop that I only found with the help of a man who wanted me to convert to Buddhism. After I listened to him, he helped me find the 14-seat shop where I sat in one of the 14 individual booths and slurped pork broth and noodles.
Even on a day when an absurd number of doughnuts made their way into our newsroom, I’m thinking about the one doughnut I had in Japan.
It was a thin ring with green-tea icing I got from a Mister Donut shop in a train station. A small child was behind me in line with his father. He was adorable and excited about doughnuts. The clerks wore sanitary masks over their mouths.
I ate the tender, sweet ring of pastry quickly and caught a train back to the hotel so I could head home to Goshen.
The memory of those few bites pervades. Travel will do that to you. It’ll change how you taste something, how you see something. That’s the beauty of it.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.