Few things are as ubiquitous to the travel experience as the phrase, “when in Rome, do as the Romans.” It’s not bad advice. Experiencing how people on the other side of the world do things — whether that’s communal bathing or getting together to tell bad jokes to foreigners — is the whole point. Why bother going to China, if you’re just going to hang out at McDonald’s instead of expanding your waistline with the wholly sexual treasure that is the soup dumpling.
If you’re about to hit the road, do so with an empty, open mind. Strip off the tighty whities and relax in the onsens of Yamanakako, with strangers’ dangly bits presented in panorama; stuff yourself with one more stick of the starchy debauchery that is La Banquise in Montréal; black out for a spell with some new friends in Osaka and almost miss your train. Take whatever you can from the local way of doing things. Please, though. Please don’t feel guilty when you need a taste of home. Continue reading →
“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? Continue reading →
A doorway filled with the charcoal-infused smoke of roasting animal bits. A six-person strong chorus welcoming you, each cook, server, and dishwasher shouting as loud as their lungs will allow. Cheap beer that only comes in 1.3 pint bottles, all the offal you were always curious about but never had the gumption to try, a crowd of people of varying ages and backgrounds all looking for the same thing; this is the yakitori shop, and it’s the most dangerous place in Japan.
A line of chefs works in unison, with one end seasoning the skewered vittles and the other cooking them over charcoal-fed pyres to crispy perfection.
The word “yakitori” tells you just about everything you need to know about these extremely common establishments that pock the Japanese landscape from Kyushu to Hokkaido. “Yaki” means grilled, and “tori” means bird or chicken. You no doubt get the picture; yakitori shops are where you can get some really killer bits of chicken, everything from the intestines to the skin, skewered and grilled over charcoal. Continue reading →
$2 buys you a hard-glazed blueberry doughnut and a cup of forty weight, served en vogue in wax paper and styrofoam. Of course, what you’re really buying with your cup of burnt joe is access. Rochester’s historic Public Market, a Flower City staple since 1905, churns with vendors and those looking to take advantage of their cut-rate produce on the weekends. Now, at the beginning of the week with the sun just barely managing to peak over the sloping metal roofs of the market’s many buildings, it’s only freight drivers, the sudden hiss of hydraulic breaks, and the cuss-laden conversation of middle-aged men, hardened by years of early mornings in a starving city — all of this paid access only.
To take a seat outside Union Street Bakery and breathe deep the cloud of sauteing onion and garlic wafting from Juan and Maria’s nearby empanada shop, you’d better be ready to buy that mud and you’d better pretend to like it. The bakery’s owners are kind but proud people, unaccustomed to giving away the prime seats outside their glass-faced bakery that resembles an old New England wharf shop for free.
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As I continue pushing forward to my eventual departure, I find myself thinking about some of my favorite anecdotes from my time in Japan. No wonder — despite spending a relatively short period of my life in the Land of Amaterasu, it has remained a touchstone in my life as a traveler, a historian, and a citizen of this verdant ball of life.
Our Story Begins with Misunderstanding
Keiko, my host mother, always gave me far too much credit as far as my Japanese ability was concerned. Sure, I could hold my own in a conversation and like many who grew up idolizing different parts of Japanese culture, I could espouse on the differences between the Tokugawa and Meiji periods, all while talking fairly confidently about whatever anime was playing that season. In short, being a nerd, just as I am now, helped get me through otherwise challenging cultural gaps that I managed to skip in Nagoya, but I will undoubtedly continue to face elsewhere.
My weak spot was always food. I knew sushi, I knew ramen, and that was about it. Keiko had spent everyday for months cooking just as she would for her family if I weren’t there, ensuring that every wisp of soy scented smoke that bounced across my lips as I lay barely awake each morning and as I lay down to sleep at night was authentic to her and her family. From natto, a fermented soybean and bacterium nightmare, to sukiyaki, she formed my palette in a way that still informs every bit of Japanese cooking I taste, whether it’s ramen from Rochester or a piece of tuna sliced fresh in Fukuoka. Continue reading →