Japan on $1000 per Day
Day 6: Squirming Shrimp & Karaoki
Off to work at Chiba, a 21st-Century Hi-Tech city just North-East of Tokyo. Beautiful architecture, coordinated in a way rarely found in the more free-wheeling West. I was grilled from late-morning to late-afternoon by members of the press in a language somewhat reminiscent of English. Then I was thrust on stage to face an audience the likes of which I have never come across. They applauded politely as I walked on stage, and they applauded politely when I walked off stage. In between? Nothing. No laughter, no smiles, no raised eyebrows, no signs of life whatsoever. I had read repeatedly about Japanese business audiences, how they will fail to emote even if you take off all your clothes and run around naked firing bullets into the air, but I felt sure I could break through 1000 years of conditioning and make them come alive. How wrong I was. I hope they enjoyed the talk. I hope they got some new ideas, some new directions out of it. I suspect Ill never know.
That evening, three of us salarymen went out on the town together.
We began the evening at Hamasuchi, a raw-fish emporium on Tamachi Dori Street, just a few blocks down from my Taiga house o fugu.
My hosts appeared bent on discovering exactly what a gaijin would be unwilling to eat. (This is a popular sport in Japan. It's similar to the old Californian's trick of slapping a whole artichoke on a plate when someone from the East Coast of the USA comes to visit, then not touching their own artichoke, least the visitor have some clue how to eat it. Unfortunately, nowadays, people Back East can buy artichokes, too, so they know the trick.)
My hosts began by ordering a nice plate of octopus sashimi. No problem. After all, all the suckers had been removed. However, they had only been removed so the sushi chef could put them on the grill and turn them into octopus pop-corn--nice and crunchy. Still no problem. Those little suckers were delicious.
Now we moved on to more exotic fish. Spanish mackerel--not available in the U. SA. Next, shrimp grilled to death while still alive and kicking, then eaten whole, shell, whiskers, eyeballs, and all. The American is still eating. Then came the live shrimp, with their little tails still twitching in my fingers even as I was eating the other end. Most satisfying. By what was this? My Japanese friends were not sharing in the delicacy. Suddenly, the shoe was on the other foot, and the American was pulling ahead.
But what have we here? Fresh whale? WHALE? (Please note that the Japanese, under United Nations agreements, are allowed to take around 50 whales a year for research purposes. And any whale eaten at the old Hamasuchi that evening was done so solely for research purposes. Furthermore, no whale is taken unless it is proven to be of lower intelligence than the average encyclopedia salesman. This pretty much limits them to catching dead whales.)
Whale turned out to be the intensely dark red meat I had seen my first morning in Japan while at the fish market. It looks very much like beef, except it is spotted with small blotches of fat around 1/8 inch in diameter every inch or two. Other than these tiny white circles, it is extremely lean. Even having such a healthful appearance, however, it didnt seem to appeal to my Japanese companions very much. I was forced to eat most of the portion myself, my mother having trained me from an early age never to waste whale.
What my companions never knew--at least until now--was that I was on to their little game. My guide book was kind enough to let me in on the secret, that they would ply me with weirder and weirder foods until I surrendered. Being infinitely stubborn, I was quite prepared to never surrender. I can only be grateful I was not in Korea, where they like to eat octopus while it is still whole, alive, and well. It then becomes a contest as to who is going to eat whom first. (The sight of someone thoughfully chewing on an octopus's head while said octopus is clinging for dear life to the guy's glasses is an image that doesn't leave your mind easily.)
Dinner behind us, we headed for a delightful hostess bar just up the road. My host excused himself and went in first by himself, murmuring something about how he had to speak with the Mama-san (manager) to see whether she would let us in. What he meant was he had to see whether she would let the gaijin (foreigner) in. The Mama-san was agreeable to our entering and was agreeable to look at, as well. In fact, I suspect she was young enough to be my Daughter-san, but far be it from me to hold such a thing against her.
Karaoke has been pretty much a dud in the United States, and I always wondered what made it so popular in Japan. Now I know. There were five tables total in the hostess bar, and five hostesses to populate them, along with a bartender to do any real work. Since there were only five patrons total in the bar that evening, we each had our own private hostess, who waited on us hand-and-foot. Like most guys, I had discounted the stories that geisha girls only waited on and amused their guests, preferring to believe something far more salacious was going on. I can now report there is something better than salaciousness (or perhaps I m just showing my age).
It is absolutely delightful to have a pretty young human being interested only in your every happiness, ready to laugh at the stupidest off-hand remark, never letting your glass grow empty, constantly popping another interesting morsel of food into your mouth. I was reminded of what Dr. Joyce Brothers said years ago when questioned as to why older men go after young women. She replied that it had nothing to do with the men looking for someone like their daughter. Quite the opposite: They were looking for someone like their mother, the mother they had had when they were babies, the mother who was young, soft, pretty, and took care of their every want and need. Our mama-san and her court were every bit of that, and more. When enveloped in such nurturing comfort, theres only one thing you want to do, and thats sing. We sang our little hearts out in Japanese, in English, and in something that, as the night wore on, sounded sort of in-between. What an evening!
At one point, one of my hosts asked me what I felt having now been in their country for the better part of a week. I confessed to them that I felt shame for my own country, where we are slovenly, rude, disorganised, and seem to spend most of our time trying to rob, beat, and kill each other. They assured me that Japan has its problems, too, that what may appear to be such an ideal civilisation has its own personal costs, and they are not trivial, even if quite well hidden.
But that was a side of Japan we would not explore, at least on this trip, because, starting tomorrow, we were off on a great adventure, out of Tokyo and into the mountains.
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