Japan – a place of mystery and joy and…salmonella.

What kind of moron eats raw chicken? This kind of moron. Japan will do that to you. But it will also charm and mystify you, and no wonder people love this place so much.

Twenty years ago, Janine and I packed up and moved to Japan, and I still consider it one of the best decisions we ever made. We learned how to observe the world around us and then adapt to what we saw. We experienced what it’s like to be illiterate and almost completely ignorant of virtually every cultural norm. As fish out of water experiences go, this was up there. You might say it was a raw fish out of water experience.

We made it work. We made friends, learned a little Japanese, and our daughter was born here. I was really excited about coming back.

Our first stop was Kobe, where my friend Paul and his better half Megumi had invited us to visit. Paul and I worked together for several years, and apart from being one of the nicest guys I know, he’s a world class eater. Paul and I ate sheep’s head in Morocco and bushrat in Ghana, so when Paul promises a good time, he means it. Paul had warned that we’d eat our way through Kobe, and while I’d be glad to see him even if he were a celiac vegan, I have to confess I was especially excited.

Our first stop was a neighborhood izakaya called Shindo, that had a total of maybe fifteen seats. Izakayas are casual pubs that serve food, and they are generally considered to be places where the drinking is more important than the eating. This izakaya was certainly an exception. We had plate after plate of Japanese delights. There was impeccable octopus, perfect tempura, sashimi of fugu (you know, the poisonous puffer fish), eel, and all manner of other goodies. While the eating was great, so was the drinking. There was no shortage of exceptional sakes – a lot of the sake we have in the states is godawful, but boy do they make some nice stuff here. We had crisp dry sakes and sweet flowery sakes. Paul got us off to a very good start.

We kicked off our tour of foods you shouldn't eat with a little fugu (L), which if prepared incorrectly is poisonous.

We kicked off our tour of foods you shouldn’t eat with a little fugu (L), which if prepared incorrectly is poisonous.

Paul couldn’t get a reservation at one of his favorite joints the next night, so Megumi made nabe at home, which turned out to be way better than anything we could have had anywhere. Nabe is a big stew of whatever you feel like throwing in the pot. Megumi’s nabe was simple but spectacular. At the risk of getting it wrong, I think it went something like this: Start with a pot of hot water in which you steep a sachet of dashi mix. Dashi is a combination of dried bonito flakes and edible kelp called Konbu, which makes a smoky, fishy base for the soup. Then you add some miso, aromatics like onion and maybe some carrots, and whatever else strikes your fancy. Megumi adds kimchi and I think some kind of red pepper flakes for spice. Once the soup base has simmered for a bit, it goes in a big ceramic pot that sits on a portable burner in the middle of the table, where you throw in hunks of whatever you find in your fridge, which in Japan can be napa cabbage, shitake mushrooms, burdock, taro root, tofu, daikon, and strips of shaved pork shoulder or some other small amounts of meat. It was simply glorious. I had forgotten how easy and satisfying nabe was and I can’t wait to put it in the rotation when we get home. I may even have to spring for a proper nabe pot for the sake of verisimilitude.

A glorious pot of Japanese stew, right before we started cooking.

A glorious pot of Japanese stew, right before we started cooking.

On our last night in Kobe, Paul tried to kill me. We went to his favorite yakitori restaurant. These are humble little places where the main event is grilled meat on a stick. Traditional yakitori places like this one just serve chicken, but others branch out into vegetables, beef, or pork. We had pretty much every part of the chicken – thighs, breast, liver, and heart-stopping rolled up tubes of grilled chicken skin. This was all quite tame when Paul noted that one of the specialties of the house was chicken sashimi. Yes, kids, they serve raw chicken at this place. Don’t worry, Paul advised, the chickens are treated like spoiled children and kept in pristine conditions and it’s perfectly safe. I didn’t take much convincing. There was no way I was passing up the chance to add raw chicken to my list of culinary conquests.

Raw chicken - it's what's for dinner! (It seemed like a good idea at the time, although I don't know why.)

Raw chicken – it’s what’s for dinner! (It seemed like a good idea at the time, although I don’t know why.)

So? It was very mild, almost like yellowtail or some other gently tasting sushi. Little did I know that three days later I would spend the night doubled over with cramps and shaking with chills. Was it the raw chicken? I’ll never know (Paul was none the worse for wear), but I’ll always wonder.

On our last day in Kobe, Paul and I went to a preseason baseball game between the local Hanshin Tigers and the Saitama Lions. Japanese baseball is like American baseball being watched by South American soccer fans. They sing songs for each player, spend much of the game on their feet, and generally whoop it up.

There are other things to love about Japanese baseball, like the beer. Well, the beer is lousy, but the beer sellers are as entertaining as the game. Beer is sold by young women who schlep around a thirty pound pony keg on their backs and then dispense the beer at your seat. To market their product, they walk to the front of the aisle, bow, raise one hand, and sing “who would like some beer?” in a particularly nasal tone. I felt bad for them because it was a preseason game and the stadium was mostly empty and the kegs didn’t seem to be emptying terribly quickly. Since the people in our section (as opposed to the boosters’ section in the bleacher) were eerily quiet, as a result, at some points the most prominent sound in the stadium was dozens, if not scores, of young women singing “who would like some beer” in a way that would make adnoid surgeons salivate.

Lousy beer poured with gusto.

Lousy beer poured with gusto.

We were situated in prime foul ball territory and our chances of snagging a ball were improved by two important factors – there weren’t many people in the stands, and when a foul ball was hit into the stands, the fans cowered in fear. Nobody seemed to want to catch a foul ball. Wouldn’t you know it, a ball came in our direction and not a single fan made a move for it. Many just stared at the thing, as if wondering what that foreign object was that bounced down the aisle. When it stopped rolling, I just picked it up.

What a country!

What a country!

I love this place!

9 thoughts on “Japan – a place of mystery and joy and…salmonella.

  1. I am stealing this line for an opening sentence to a great story: On our last night in Kobe, Paul tried to kill me.

  2. I stopped at a little yakitori stand above Osaka’s Umeda station, twelve days ago. The young guys were yukking it up with me before serving me three small skewers of chicken. The meat seemed a little pinkish but seemed to go well with my cold beer. Then I noticed the guy grilling the skewers didn’t really seem to cooking the meat properly; he was holding them over a flame, then moving them away from the flame to keep them from burning. Thirty two hours later, the cramps and diaharria started and have continued for ten days. Still not completely recovered.

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