It was raining.
After the concentrated sea of human and automotive traffic that had defined my time in China and Hong Kong, there was a certain strangeness (albeit a welcome one) to descending into the flat, pastoral landscape of Narita International Airport on February 7th. Aside from the airport, the most noteworthy thing in sight was a fringe of trees in the distance, hardly the outcrops of residential towers raking the clouds I’d grown accustomed to seeing the past two weeks. It was a painless four-hour flight from Hong Kong, but the sleepless night I had before–rising creakily at 5 a.m. to washed out indigo light pressing against foggy windows, excitement fluttering against my rib cage like a caged bird making sleep a distant thought–didn’t exactly put a spring in my step as our plane taxied to the gate. That, and the Earworms Rapid Japanese track (words and phrases whispered like sweet nothings over and over to hypnotic musical rhythms) offered on the in-flight entertainment system thrumming away in my ears like the backing track to a questionable discotheque, was a recipe for drowsiness.
Even as we made our way through immigration/customs and down the halls towards baggage claim, “Welcome to Japan!” signs heralding us every few feet from the walls, it felt like something out of a dream–colours too vivid and the announcements over the P.A. system a muted smear of sound interrupted by the too loud click-clack of my luggage.
I think it was the restroom that snapped me out of it (or more appropriately, back into it, that Yes, after years of wanting, we were actually in Japan). Seeing the Japanese-style washlet in the “porcelain”–seat warming! deodorizing! sound effects for your comfort!–I was awake. I was very, very awake and wholly delighted. I was still too self-conscious in the airport to take the panel of functions for a spin, but there was no shortage of stifled laughter and eye-widening in wonder. “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”… and when were you planning on telling me about your second life as the manufacturer* of those electric toilet seats, hmm?
Is being a dog just not enough for you?
After collecting our baggage, a representative from our tour company greeted and walked us through how the rest of the evening would go–transportation to Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, dinner reservations, and our schedule for the next morning. The shuttle arrived at ~5:15 p.m. and we were off (but not before experiencing our first taste of Japanese propriety: the bus attendants at each stop bowed to approaching and departing buses, as well as stepped on board briefly to check something or another with the driver before bowing to the latter and stepping off). It’s one of my primary anxieties with international travel–the desperate scramble to memorize proper etiquette for each country–but armed with a little bow and a smile of my own, I had a good feeling about the week ahead.
“Nihongo ga wakarimasen” (“I don’t understand Japanese”) would also come in handy. Besides, I could only get so much traction with my impeccable ability to count to three.
The bus ride took just over an hour, a scattering of raindrops chasing across the windows and muddying the passing cities and road lights like a sequence straight out of some indie film: close-up on our female protagonists staring unblinkingly out at the darkness streaking by, the glow of vacation-induced hope radiating from their rapt faces as a serene piano melody** tinkles in the background. I should write this movie, but I was a little too busy living it.
Mum spent the entire bus ride pointing animatedly at signs passing us on the freeway–“I can understand! I can understand! The meaning’s the same in Chinese, this is amazing!” (kanji, which makes up part of the Japanese writing system, are adopted Chinese characters)–but a hush fell over both of us as we hit the traffic entering Tokyo proper. I pressed my face to the glass, craning my neck to get a glimpse of the Tokyo Tower’s spire glowing in the gaps between passing buildings.
We arrived at the Imperial with just 15 minutes to spare before our dinner call (apparently, we were the last in our tour group to arrive). While my mum checked us in I hovered by the bellhop, who was transferring our–like I previously mentioned, embarrassing–amount of luggage onto a cart with the utmost precision; literally at a loss for words, we mutually agreed on trading a chorus of “arigato’s”. Another hotel staff member–bespectacled, beaming, and with a default walking speed that equaled my moderate jog–showed us to our room with the luggage cart in hand. With so many bashful gesticulations and a few words in English while we were on the elevator to the 26th floor, I learned “totemo kirei” from the bemused-at-first, but very obliging staff member. “Very beautiful.” And it was very beautiful: the hotel, as opulent as it sounds and with a view of the Imperial Palace from a high enough floor, and the most elegant elevator I’d been in to date, complete with a corner seat and a single fresh rose in a vase set in an alcove on the center wall. Totemo kirei. It wouldn’t be my last time thinking that, not by a long shot.
With two minutes to spare until our allotted dinner hour, we raced back downstairs (a couple of minutes were lost exclaiming at what a thorough toiletry kit we had waiting in the bathroom) on the heels of our Helpful Staff Member. We met with another tour representative in one of the Imperial’s lower meeting areas and she personally walked us over to the restaurant. It was starting to drizzle again, but one of the hotel staff intercepted us on our way out and handed us an umbrella each.
A brisk five-minute walk from the hotel and we were headed down a flight of stairs into the cozy basement quarters of Yasai No Ohsama, which celebrates vegetable-oriented dining. It was like stepping out of the rain and into someone’s back garden porch–white walls and furnishings warmed by the light hardwood floors underfoot and further softened by the hangers along the walls covered with customers’ coats and scarves.
We had a three-course meal set out for us, with a little glass to start that we could fill with anything from the restaurant’s salad bar (we couldn’t refill on the vegetables, so the tour rep who brought us advised that we positively stuff the thing; dressing refills were unlimited, so I just went for the bottles that were the emptiest because I figured they were the most popular–I ended up with something that had a lemony base, a sesame sauce, and a third that eluded my taste buds no matter how hard I squinted and inhaled).
Now this… this was an uncommon salad bar.
Or uncommon by my experience. As far as I know, everything served at Yasai No Ohsama is organic and you could see and taste the hours and care that went into cultivating each leaf, each sprout, each polished pepper. I could identify about a little over half of the vegetables on display (if I’m being generous with myself)–there were a rainbow of carrots no bigger than your finger, what looked like paper-thin medallions of every member of the radish family (watermelon, daikon, and otherwise), shapely florets of Romanesco broccoli, something that looked like aloe but was crunchier and porous.
I could have been sated just standing there poring over the cherry tomatoes.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves–I was here to eat. And if looking at a salad bar was enough to give me heart palpitations, I was not about to let our first meal in Japan go unsavored.
I cannot emphasize enough: I could write an aria to that vegetable glass. When? When did my stars align? I had at the end of my chopsticks a vegetable ark: this is what a tomato should taste like, this is how a carrot should smell–if all the world’s vegetables vanished, remember this tomato and remember this carrot.
I love Japanese cuisine–it’s one of, if not my favourite of all the ones I’ve tried–and I’ve been exposed to some quality offerings from the sushi and sashimi side of it, what with growing up in Southern California. But there is no putting into words what it’s like to have Japanese food in Japan; the breadth and the guiding principles behind it is staggering. Sitting there with my mum heckling me to stop taking photos and start eating, quietly fretting about whether I was unknowingly committing one dining etiquette crime or another, and haltingly trying to communicate to the waiter in so many head shakes and smiles that “Yes, we had the udon course”–that was when I knew, threw my arms out and embraced it without pause, that this was Japan and we had finally arrived.
Yasai No Ohsama was such a fantastic “Yokoso!” to the country (and my belly) and set a ridiculously high bar for food that was met and exceeded over and over again the rest of the trip. I’m sure there are poor dining options in Japan, but my impression (however narrow it may be because of how brief my stay was) is that they’re far outweighed by the truly wonderful. It’s not often that you find yourself in a country that values and enjoys food as universally as Japan does.
The realization was divine.
We emerged into a faint mist and Ginza’s quiet streets, the bustling upscale shopping district now undisturbed save for light from the streetlamps pooling on the wet cement. My mum and I went for a brief and fruitless walk to find pastries (it took us some incredulous blinking to come around to the fact that stores close at ~8 p.m.)–
And found this fella instead.
Next week: what would you do if your TV achieved sentience? How good can rice really get? How many people does it take to dye a handkerchief?
Have a wonderful weekend!
* Founded in 1917, Kitakyushu-based company, Toto Ltd., is the world’s largest toilet manufacturer. I had no idea I’d end up devoting an entire paragraph to toilet discussion so early on in recapping my Japan adventures, yet here we are. And you probably haven’t read the last of it. I’m so sorry.
** The Blogger’s Continual Desire to Live in a Studio Ghibli Film