If you haven’t read Part I yet…here it is
After five days, it seemed like the sky opened and it would not stop raining. At one point it rained so hard it soaked through my umbrella. Waiting for a cab (on the wrong side of the street) I realized I was getting soaked to my bones. When we arrived at my host’s restaurant I asked for hot sake, thinking this would be the Japanese thing to ask for. She replied, “A glass of good whiskey works best.”
Japan was like that. I’d think I was getting the hang of things only to find out I had missed the boat once again. Here’s another example. There are these amazing long-legged crabs that are found in the Sea of Japan. They are called “Spider Crabs” and have longer legs than Alaskan King Crab. My host and her daughter took me to this famous restaurant in Kyoto that specialized in these crabs. Soon after ordering, the crab’s cleaned body and a pile of crab legs on a plate was put before each of us.
Now I thought my host would be a very typical Japanese eater of crab. When her daughter visited me in California, I once served our famous Dungeness crab. She meticulously removed all the meat from the shell, legs and claws, put it in a neat pile, discarded the shells and then and only then began to eat. She explained that this is the way her mother taught her to eat crab. So I was expecting a mother and daughter synchronized crab-piling contest. Instead, my host grabbed a crab leg, with a quick twist broke the red spiny leg in two and proceeded with her chopstick to push the meat out with one motion.
I was going to say something but decided to keep my mouth shut. It took me a couple of clumsy tries to master the chopstick-push-crabmeat-out maneuver. I eventually mastered the one motion action and began to enjoy the delicious meat. It was different from our West Coast Dungeness crab, not quite as sweet with a more tangy, salty taste of the sea. I enjoyed every morsel, picking up the loose pieces on my plate as best I could with my chopsticks.
A few days later the rain had finally stopped and I found myself with my host family next to the famous Gion district again; only this time my young host’s father was joining us. We all squeezed in a tiny elevator and rode up to the second floor. The building that looked like every other office building you saw in Japan, drab concrete with rectangular windows in an orderly row. When we emerged from the elevator there was a restaurant immediately to the right with tables filled with diners. To the left next to the dining area was a long fish tank, filled with hundreds of different kinds of fish and assorted shellfish unaware that they would soon be consumed by hungry diners. “You will like this Paul-san,” my host’s father told me.
We were seated and he then began to order. Dish after dish arrived washed down with copious amounts of beer. Then he ordered something that arrived in a shot glass. It was dark and inky. He said something to his daughter in Japanese who giggled and then translated. “My father says it is time for you to become a Japanese man.” I smiled as politely as possible after three plus Kirin’s, wondering what was next? More Japanese followed from my host’s father. “Please Paul-san, he says you must now swallow this,” she told me, again giggling. My host’s father was smiling like the Cheshire Cat. “What is it?” I asked. “Octopus gonads,” she replied. “You swallow all at once Paul-san. Then drink a glass of sake right afterwards. The two go together. It is tradition.”
Putting aside my squeamishness about the yucky looking stuff before me, my host’s family all smiling and looking at me, probably somewhat anxiously, I picked up the glass and like my first oyster let it slide down my gullet in one slimy action. I quickly grabbed the shot glass of sake and downed that with one gulp. Fortunately, I couldn’t taste much of the octopus gonads but what I could, I was glad the shooter of sake quickly followed removing a majority of the taste.
Slapping me on the back, “You now a real Japanese man, Paul-san,” my host’s father said to me laughing. The two women, mother and daughter, smiled and clapped in appreciation that I had succeeded in doing it while no doubt praying that I didn’t retch afterwards embarrassing everyone. For me, I did notice that afterwards the family warmed up to me incrementally more each day. So I guess I did pass a test of sorts.
But one more test was to follow and it was a doozy.
Continue to Part III
Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Paul Rest / Edited, Karie Engels Giffin