“Would you like your miso soup with clams, seaweed, or tofu?” she asked, though I didn’t know it at the time. I stammered on, begging her to forgive my language skills and asking her to repeat herself just once more. She slowed down, repeating the question. She asked three times, at increasingly slow speed, until I understood just what she wanted.
There are few things that help heal a traveler like food. Whether it’s the familiar taste of home or the notes of expertise pumped into local dishes by a cook who’s spent her life working the same flavors, a good meal can be a powerful salve for homesickness. In the case of the understudied or the lazy — I was admittedly in the latter category for too long — what should be a time to recharge and shrug off the shock of a new culture, of chronological and emotional displacement, can quickly turn stressful. I managed to order that first meal, miso soup and all, but the taste of it sat heavy with guilt and self-doubt. If I couldn’t even manage to order a meal without fitting the part of the ignorant gaijin, how was I going to live here for a year?
This encounter was six weeks ago, and even though I was sure things would run smoother, the return to Tonkatsu Toki, or “Tonkatsu Time,” for another round of fried pork cutlet and the usual set fare didn’t make my mouth water. Instead, I was intimidated. Walking home from work, thoughts of dinner pounding violently behind my brow, I wanted tonkatsu. The restaurant sat beckoning at the bottom of the hill, but a whiff of wafting fryer oil brought back my embarrassment. It’s said that fear robs you of great life opportunities; in my case, it just ensured I ate boring convenience store food as a matter of course for too long.
Tonkatsu Toki isn’t a joint used to intimidation. The food is worthy of its local reputation, but this is no Michelin Star setup. The dining room blinds with yellow lights reflecting off tables and floors, linoleum buffed with methodical daily cleaning. Not confident enough to let diners revel in the silence of enamel through fried pig flesh, the wooden din of chopstick on soup bowl, synth versions of Ai Otsuka’s Peach and one of the theme’s from the Pokémon-klling Youkai Watch stream just a little too loudly into the diner’s ear.
I wasn’t sure how long the self-imposed exile was going to last. I would have been happy never to go back. After yet another failed attempt to track down records from the The Shins and The Smiths at the used shop, which resulted in a startling discovery that you can get Ace of Base albums far more readily, I felt my subconscious and conscious minds shrug off the cowardice they’d worn for weeks.
Sabae, my surrogate city, stunk in the way a spring deluge stinks. It smelled of worms and dirt and fishing and kissing in the rain. It smelled, thanks to the nearby tonkatsu artisan, like bubbling vats of precious fat and perfectly browned slabs of pork. Hoping that my 100-Yen Shop umbrella would hold out under the wind and buffeting rain for the short walk to the restaurant, the scent, so long associated with my own insecurity, grew.
Collapsing the umbrella and placing it in the holder just outside the door, I entered the restaurant to a chorus of irrashaimase! “Welcome!” The same waitress from the incident walked out to greet me and showed me to my table. If she had similar reservations about my return to her place of gainful employment, they didn’t show on her face.
I cleaned my hands with the wet towel and emulating the old man nearby, similarly cleaned off my face. I already knew what I wanted — the roast katsu set meal, complete with rice, miso, pickles, and tea, was just what I ordered, tried to order, last time. I hit the button, feeling nervous as my finger pushed down on the faux mother of pearl call switch. The cheery bell sounded in the dining room, my server appeared, and it began.
“I’d like the roast katsu set, please.”
“Okay, would you like your miso with clams or seaweed? You can have the pork soup instead, but that’s an extra 100 yen,” she chirped, likely not remembering the last time we had the exact same chat.
This time, though, I didn’t stop her. My tongue moved with newfound sentience, ordering the clam miso before I’d had a chance to think about it. After thanking me, the server went off to put in the order. Rapidly, another server appeared with a mortar full of freshly toasted sesame seeds. He recommended I grind the seeds to make an excellent topping for my yet to be delivered meal. I understood all of that, too. There wasn’t a single word I failed to understand, a response I was left looking for with hot cheeks and apologies on my breath.
I began the work of making sesame paste as I waited. The pestle did its job, forcing the microscopic droplets of newly released sesame oil into the air and up my nose. As I transmuted seed into dressing, I worried. I knew I’d understood my server’s words, but as she plugged the order into the tiny tablet she carried, had she understood mine?
A few minutes later, my teeth crunched satisfyingly through the embrittled shell of the pork, juice and oil running down my throat. She’d understood me, alright. The meal was as I’d ordered. Everything was perfect — at least until I got to the counter and found the price with tax was more than I’d anticipated.
One step at a time, Japan.