First Taste of Japan

The 19th-century Irish-American vagabond and travel writer Lafcadio Hearn opened the first of his many books on Japan by quoting an English professor whom he met in his first days there. “Do not fail to write down your first impressions as soon as possible,” the old scholar said. “They are evanescent, you know; they will never come to you again once they have faded out; and yet of all the strange sensations you may receive in this country you will feel none so charming as these.”

I have been walking around Tokyo for days now with Hearn’s book Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894) in my pocket. It may seem like a foolish choice. Why settle for “glimpses” from a fellow who admits to knowing the country only superficially, when there are plenty of people who can offer expertise with a capital E? That would include Hearn himself, who settled, married, and lived till his death in Japan. And yet, the critic Donald Richie notes, it is his very first writings, from when he knew least about the country, that have always been his most popular.

Edith Wharton actively distrusted expertise. She could have been thinking about Hearn when she wrote, in French Ways and Their Meaning (1919), “There are two ways of judging a foreign people: at first sight, impressionistically, in the manner of the passing traveller; or after residence among them, ‘soberly, advisedly.’ .  .  . Of the two ways, the first is, even in ordinary times, often the most fruitful. The observer, if he has eyes and an imagination, will be struck first by the superficial dissemblances, and they will give his picture the sharp suggestiveness of a good caricature. If he settles down among the objects of his study .  .  . he will waver between contradictions, and his sharp outlines will become blurred with what the painters call ‘repentances.’ ”

Good for her. But I always want to get to the bottom of things. Staying in a hotel that offers four different restaurants, I chose the “classic” Japanese one for my first breakfast. I had woken up fresh as a daisy. In a convenience store the night before I had tried to buy sparkling water and figured out which of the nearly identical plastic bottles with kitty-cats and squirrels contained it. I had learned the Japanese word for thank you. I had taken a walk in the 400-year-old Japanese garden next door and marveled at the carp pond, which was so well stocked I assumed they must practice catch-and-release here. I was ready to continue blazing a path as a savvy traveler. No International Omelette Bar for me!

A woman in a kimono nodded to me as I entered and said something. I repeated it back to her. I hope it was “Good morning” and not “Hello, sir.” She walked me through the restaurant, which was packed with Japanese businessmen in suits and ties and older Japanese couples, and sat me at a table in the far back corner of the restaurant, facing the wall, where I was invisible to other diners.

Probably in Japan they consider the back corner in the annex the place of honor, but to me it was terribly unfortunate. Because when my Shogunate Sampler arrived, the waitress forgot to bring the instructions. There was some hot water in a cereal bowl, another empty bowl, a stack of dry seaweed, some pebbly looking paste in various pastel colors, and a pile of teensy-weensy high-viz-orange fishes which didn’t appear to be moving but didn’t appear to be cooked either, a seaweed called “black algae,” a sauce that consisted of black algae chopped into a viscous fluid, a ramekin full of stuff that looked like Greek yogurt but which, when you dug into it, turned out to be warm tofu juice, a slice of gelatinized fish cube, and some long-stemmed mini-mushrooms in another bowl of water. I could go on. The breakfast was in about 40 pieces.

What was I supposed to do? Was I supposed to put the seaweed on the gelatinized fish cube? Pour the tofu juice onto the tiny mushrooms? Squash the tiny fishes into the paste pebble? My back was to the restaurant. I couldn’t just wait the Japanese out and watch what they did. I came up with a rule: If it was on a plate I’d eat it, and if it was in a glass or cup I’d drink it.

I finished my breakfast with a frothy warm white drink in a glass that I quite liked. As I left, I told the hostess so and asked her what you called that drink. She put her hand over her mouth as if to stop herself from bursting out laughing.

“It is a drink, isn’t it?” I asked.

“You can drink if you like!” she nodded reassuringly before frowning a bit and adding in the tone of one offering tips: “But Japanese eat on rice. It is a whipped yam.”

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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