Friday, May 1, 2009

My Journey to Japan

I was always asked why I wanted so badly to travel to Japan. “Because I want to pay homage to the land of sushi,” I would reply. And since I was such a huge fan of Japanese cuisine, the fact that I had still never visited the country began to elicit surprise from my acquaintances. “You haven’t been to Japan? I thought for sure you’ve already been there…” “How can you not have been to Japan…?”

There never seemed to be the right time; there were so many other distant lands to explore, so many other things to do. Soon, both time and excuses seemed to be running out.

The long-awaited trip to Tokyo (as I am ever beckoned by the allure of big cities) finally happened mid-April: an eight-night stay in the Shinjuku district, to be followed by a quick detour to Hong Kong.

I prepared myself for fresh, traditional-style sushi, having heard from friends who've been to Japan that the country actually has none of the sushi-shenanigans seen so often in the States (i.e., crazy sauces, quirky ingredients, creative rolls with even more creative names). In fact, the consensus seemed to be that sushi is still better over here, as we have a greater tendency toward cross-cultural fusion and that good old-fashioned enterprise of competition, both of which result in ever-changing menus and new dishes.

So I surprised myself when I ordered the most unexpected thing for my first meal in Tokyo: raw horse sashimi. I didn’t know which part of that was more shocking: that it was raw, or that it was horse. Oh, but it was there and it dared me to eat it. I thought maybe it was written wrong. Maybe they meant horse mackerel, which I have heard of.

“No, I think it’s actual horse,” said my travel companion, insisting that it wouldn’t make me sick because she has eaten raw chicken before in Japan and it didn’t make her ill. Well, that sounded good enough for me. When the dish arrived, a heap of blood-red yet bloodless slices of meat arranged with minced garlic and raw onions, she said, “That’s all you. I will eat anything but that.”

After tasting it, I didn’t blame her. It was cold, chewy, and too carnal, somehow. Yet it didn’t taste like anything I recognized. Why hadn’t I ordered sushi again? Oh, that’s right. Because I wanted to be adventurous. The garlic and onions didn’t help it by much, they merely overrode the whatever fleshy flavor the baniku provided. But those who know what I’ve eaten in the past shouldn’t flinch too much. With a tad of guilt I admit I’ve ingested raw whale, smoked puffin, kangaroo, rattlesnake-and-rabbit sausages, crocodile, alligator sausage...the list goes on and on.

She finally braved a bite, and said it tasted like raw hamburger meat. I felt queasy afterwards. The cigarette smoke-filled air in the restaurant didn’t help, either. But the other dishes made up for it in taste, if not in healthiness: bacon-wrapped asparagus, deep-fried mini fish with spicy salt and mayonnaise, beef-wrapped enoki mushrooms….

The second restaurant we hopped over to also had a Japanese-only name, which gave it a feel of authenticity even though a reference-point was lost on me (as I didn’t know what to call it). Again, a menu with lots of pictures helped, but everything did have both a Japanese and English description. I chose a cut roll with “Bar-Roasted Mackerel,” which tasted similar to herring but was actually a mackerel superior to all the mackerels I had ever tasted. The black-mottled silver slices, with the thinnest veil of torched fish skin, sat atop large mounds of rice with nothing rolled in them, as if they were nigiri-style with plumped-up bases. The dish cost 780 Yen, which is about $8.50.

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