It’s nearly 10 pm and I am wandering the side streets in Okayama, a city I’ve never been to before. My train from Tokyo took over 4 hours and now I am on my weary food mission. This is the part of my business in Japan that I find most frustrating. After a long day of appointments and travel, the last thing I want to do is go hunting for a place. This isn’t my best adventure hour. I stare at plastic food models in the windows, look for places that might have photos on the walls, and struggle to find something that is open and clear about what’s on the menu.
In a place like Japan – or China, Thailand, wherever they have a non-Latin alphabet – food can get tricky. In Germany I can always sound out the words or Google them. Not in Japan. Many places offer photos or you can look up a few key words such as chicken, soup, or just point: “I’ll have what SHE’S having.”
The best places are often the ones that have no photos whatsoever, just Japanese written on menu boards or even nothing at all. But those are also the places where my vocabulary of a short list of niceties and a couple food items is pretty useless. It’s like knowing only “gracias” and “taco” in Spanish. I am a non-functional idiot. I can say Yes in Japanese – and do so with enthusiasm as it sounds like I am delivering a quick karate chop – HAI! – (But apparently I don’t remember how to say No. I am a yes man in Japan.)
-Welcome, how can we serve you? May I take your order?
-… Thank you.
-Would you like something to drink maybe?
-Um. You can sit over there.
-(daft smile, eyes follow finger to wall, contemplates the art work)
… Thank you. (stands uncertainly, surveys room, everyone at all tables staring) Um, beer?
Being thirsty is never a problem.
But despite the many shuttered storefronts and the darkened places along the covered pedestrian arcade, a few restaurants show customers. One features a pair of Westerners with guitars bellowing through some really bad classic rock covers. They must figure David Hasselhoff was big in Germany, so maybe the equation works elsewhere. I scurry past.
Another place is in a corner building that appears to be a small house. Inside is a small mesmerizing room of color, fabric, hanging things, pillows, dim but warm light with a reddish hue, a short bar with some bottles behind it and a wooden skull on top of it. There are a few little tea garden chairs and a knee-high gate in the doorway, perhaps to keep a child or pet within. I see and hear no one, but the music is in Japanese and sort of cool and hippie. I see no sign of food, let alone management, so I move on. I come to a beer bar and pass it (hard to believe, I know) and its impressive collection of imports. The rest just get the Goldilocks attitude: Too many people. Too much cigarette smoke. Not enough photos of food to point at. That guy is looking at me weirdly.
I go back to where I started at the top of the street and I sneak a peek under the Japanese characters that hang on cloths in front of all doors. I see photos. Two men and a woman at the counter, a cook behind the grill and stovetop. Why is this always so difficult for me? The fear of playing a fool in public. I look at the photos again – dumplings! I know that word. Gyoza!
I enter with all eyes upon me awaiting my opening monologue. I point to the wall and say gyoza and the cook, relieved, repeats it and goes to make it. One of the guys at the counter says, No, they are not closed. Open.
Huh? Ah, “gyoza” and “closed.” His expectations for what I am going to ask lead him to hear something else. (Several years of teaching English to non-native speakers has made me pretty good at figuring out why I’m not being understood and what someone might be hearing.) But the man making the food understands and that’s all that’s important. The counter folks are discussing me, then one man turns and asks, “Do you speak Japanese? No? We are trying to communicate with them for a long time now.”
“Ah! You are not Japanese?”
“We,” he indicates his companion but not the woman, “are Mongolian.”
They are paleontologists, in Japan for some university meetings and to open their exhibit, “Dinosaurs of the Gobi Desert,” at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo. I missed my chance already. But they tell me it will move to Nagoya by spring, so I will see it then.
I tell them about what I do, how long I’m in country, and soon we are lifting little glasses of Kirin beer.
My gyoza arrives on a cast-iron hotplate. They are folded, not pinched, and fried with something sprinkled over them. The cook – the owner, in fact – comes around the counter to serve them sizzling. He pours soy sauce, shows me some hot sauce, and another paste he just calls “Japanese.”
The Mongolians and I chat a while and then it is time for them to go. Another Japanese man joins the woman at the counter soon after they’re gone. The two know each other. She smokes as soon as the dinosaur guys are gone. I finish my meal and go to pay. 500 yen. I look back at the photo and price. That’s just for gyoza. I point at my big empty bottle of Kirin and he circles his finger in the air around where the Mongolians had been sitting. They paid for my beer.
The two at the counter notice me eyeing their food so they put some in a small soup bowl. “Try!” Egg noodles, thicker than ramen and straight, some cabbage, a piece of lean pork. “White pepper,” the man says, handing it to me. The soup is delicious and I say so: oishi. Much to their delight. They are Nagasaki-style noodles, champon(?), I am told. Kyushu, they add. The gyoza with the sizzling hot plate, are Hakata-style.
“What is your favorite Japanese food?” he asks. And I’m thinking, what Japanese food words do I know?
Ah! They are pleased with my expanding vocabulary, so I throw out another. “Tako!” (Octopus)
“EeeeeEEEH! Tako?” They point to the wall and a bad photo that looks like it might be soup or porridge or a bowl of vanilla ice cream with spring onions on it. Tako wasabi. Takowasa, they tell me.
I turn back to the counter and the chef already has a small sample plate of it for me to try. Raw bits of octopus with a bit of wasabi lingering in it plus some onions. It’s oishi. I appreciate his kindness and figure I should order a drink at least. I ask for a “Highball.” (Whisky and soda). A popular drink and available in cans at convenience stores – and here.
“How do you like Okayama?”
“I don’t know. I arrived today.”
The man at the counter says, “Very country. Not like Tokyo.”
“Relaxed,” I say, making various mime moves that could get me beaten up in a different environment. They roll the r’s and l’s around in their mouths, quietly trying to repeat it. The guy says “Very country” again.
“Where’s your hotel?”
Forgeting caution and traveler’s wisdom, I just plow on and answer. “Oh, I am at Mitsui Garden Hotel over by the train station.”
“Ah, onsen (hot spring/bath). Very good.” There is a public bath on the top floor of the hotel, I remember.
Wisconsin. Shinkansen. Is that a rhyme? We speak of my state’s location, and Masa, the owner, opens his plastic-wrap covered laptop behind the counter.
Beer, I tell them. Miller beer, Pabst. Very famous. Knowing the Japanese love baseball, I say Milwaukee Brewers. Many Germans. Masa explains to Nogami the connection that just occurred to him. I can understand he says Sapporo (the Japanese beer), a word that sounds similar to Munich, then Milwaukee. We are connected by Munich and beer. He continues to jab at his laptop.
Then a light comes on in Masa’s face. “Wisconsin? EeeeeEEEEH!” (long stream of Japanese, arms waving, really excited) I understand nothing but I swear I hear him say “Packers.” Then I hear “football.” Green Bay? I ask. “Hai! Green Bay Packers.” He explains to the guy at the counter and I hear “soccer” and he waves his hands vaguely and with clear disapproval: in soccer they are all just milling about, you know. But in American football (he puts his hands out as though holding a small box squeezed between them, and then chops the air, moving in one direction with each chop. Then he counts – one, two, three, four. The series of downs. He nods with a sublime smile. This sport appeals to him. They discuss it a bit and the counter guy – Nogami, he tells me — pieces it together. “It is more Japanese. The referee stops.” (He makes the four downs gesture.)
“Judo,” says Masa.
I make a mental note to see the rules for competitive judo. I imagine the referees stop and start the bouts.
But the chef returns to the topic and claims he is a Green Bay Packers fan, just like me. In Tokyo maybe you can get the games on cable, but not here in Okayama. He thinks a while, “Famous. Eh… Fahhh. Faaah…” Never mind the Anglicized pronunciation of the French spelling, in Japan the r, and add to that the v combo, proves a bit too tricky. “Brett Favre,” I say, and he stops trying. “Hai!”
I tell them I am an owner and I try to explain how Packers are different from the one-rich-guy ownership scheme of other teams. They understand, remarkably, and Nogami tells me it is the same in Japan: the community owns the Hiroshima Cubs.
So, two Mongolian paleontologists and a Japanese Packers fan. Sounds about right for a first night in Okayama.
If you are ever in Okayama, try some takowasa and Hakata gyoze at Tetumasa on the left side (heading away from the station) of the arcade right across the street from the east gate of the train station.
1 Chome-7-26 Ekimaechō, Kita-ku, Okayama-shi, Okayama-ken, Japan
Tuesday is jazz night. Not kidding.