Tuesday, January 24, 2006

A Stroll Around Town, Then Dinner

Sunday, January 8, 2006 to Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Part I

Outside the Ryoukan, going up a small hill with dead grass and winter-bare trees, alongside the street (with very little traffic and very little sidewalk), and under a small red bridge, lies the town of Inuyama. If I had to describe Inuyama town in one word, that word would be quaint.

The first major thing you come across is the shrine, with its long white torii and a colorful tako stand nearby. Across from the shrine is a small cluster of shops and restaurants. The first meal I had at Inuyama was at one of those restaurants, a place called kotobuki. It was a very traditional restaurant, with white cloth fluttering over the entrance and a display window showcasing plastic versions of their menu’s selection. I ate lunch here twice, first with a large group of IES students, then with a smaller group.

The restaurant opens by sliding door. It has tatami mats and bland looking walls with sumie (black ink painting) on it. However, the first thing that caught my attention was a large, stuffed black bird next to a display of Japanese items. The bird looked a little tacky and out of place. I took pictures.

We were seated. We took off our shoes and sat on cushions. I sat cross-legged, which turned out to be fine. We were served hot ocha, which, I’ve since learned, tends to be pretty standard in Japanese restaurants, at least in the winter. I ordered taroro soba the first day, and red miso kishimen, which is a local specialty, on the second day. It was fun, but at 700 yen for the soba and 950 for the kishimen (roughly $7.00 and $9.50 in American money), it was also rather expensive.

Breakfasts and dinners we ate at the Ryoukan. The dinners were served in the same way as in the restaurant; we sat down on cushions, a large tray set in front of us. Little old ladies in kimonos, who were the sweetest things (they reminded me of geishas in that they were expert at making us feel at home even though we didn’t really speak the language), served us tea, rice, miso soup, and, later for desert.

The first day I made the mistake of, one, not bringing my camera and, two, not taking good notes. I was struck by the beauty of how the food was arranged, but also by how very traditional the food was. There was sashimi (raw fish) and crayfish or shrimp with their faces still intact and tiny white fish with silvery eyes. I tried the sashimi, but I couldn’t eat anything that still had eyes. Fortunately, there were some things I could eat and even enjoyed. There was a nabe pot, which was a small clay pot, with a candle underneath. They lit the candle and the meat and vegetables broiled underneath the heat. The meat was normal. I also tried a quail egg (which was flavorful) and a dried persimmon. My overall impression was that it seemed so beautiful and that so much work had gone into making it, that I felt bad I couldn’t eat half of it.

The second dinner was as followed: salad with daikon (that famous, huge, white radish) and salmon wrapped in ginger; a whole, cold fish; three different types of sashimi; a whole shrimp in tempura; cold soba and eggplant; sukiyaki with a raw egg to dip it in; a whole, thick chunk of mochi (pounded rice, which becomes a sticky, chewy substance) in liquid; rice and ocha, of course; and, for desert, cantaloupe and strawberry. (The deserts were very small—maybe two or three pieces of desert.)

The sukiyaki, hot beef with onions, mushrooms, and one piece of fried tofu, was easily the least exotic dish, and I ate it up quickly. It was served in the nabe pot with the candle underneath, broiled in a sweet, delicious liquid. I also, surprisingly, enjoyed the whole fish. It was a little strange, poking my chopsticks in, and then I found it filled with roe. But I was determined to try new things. It had been marinated in something; I enjoyed the flavor, and the roe was crunchy. But I couldn’t eat the head.

The third night was a meal that my sister would not have enjoyed: it was nearly all meat. There was a giant hamburger patty and fish, fish, and more fish. I was getting used to the fish more at this point, but boy was I happy when they started to pass out the rice.

Part II

Up until the third day, things had been, if not frantic, than busy, but on Tuesday, we got the afternoon off. This meant, that instead of getting only an hour to find a restaurant, wait for our food, eat, and then head back, we could take as much time as we wanted. The result was that we got to wander a little further into the town and see what restraints was offered there.

There were several small shops, and I looked at the windows while passing. There was a pottery shop and a doll shop and several hanayas (flower shops). We walked all the way to the station, where we found an Italian restaurant. But nobody wanted to eat Italian in Japan, so the Japanese girl (the one who’s name I can’t remember) led us to a small tako stand, squeezed between shops and houses.

She ordered takoyaki and asked us to try it. Everyone in the group, however, seemed to know that tako was octopus, and they were hesitant. But, when I saw her order come up, I decided to try one.

The takoyaki were little brown fried balls, with a topping of mayonnaise, sauce, and green seasoning. I took one and ate it. The breaded part was warm and soft, though not in a soggy way. The tako itself didn’t taste like much. It was a bit chewier than most fish, and had that fishy aftertaste I hate—but it was mild, and not too bad at all.

Nonetheless, I didn’t really want takoyaki, so I ordered two crepe things, whose name I now forgot. The people at the stand made them there and wrapped them in aluminum foil and white paper. I bought a bickle (a type of drink) from a nearby vending machine and sat down on the curb to eat.

The crepe things were warm and stuffed with vegetables and sauce. I also tasted ginger. They looked a bit like soft tacos, and, like soft tacos, they were fairly cheap: only 100 yen each. They were good, but messy and there were no napkins. There’s a general shortage of napkins throughout Japan. But the stand owners gave us Kleenex to wipe our hands with, and they also gave us cups of water and candy, despite the fact that we were all sprawled right in front of the stand (the only room available), blocking them off from other customers.

The bickle was odd. It was both sweet and tangy. It was delicious, but I couldn’t really describe it. It didn’t taste like anything I knew. It was a milky color and, though I offered, nobody wanted to try it.

For desert, I bought a small cake shaped like a fish and filled with cream, for 50 yen. The cake was not sweet—it reminded me more of a waffle. It was good, but it should be warned: Japan doesn’t like its cakes oversweet; and the Western-style, sugar-filled cakes they do have tend to be expensive.

After lunch, I went to the museum and wandered through town a bit. It was cold, but cold in an adventurous sort of way. I peeked inside the doll shop and stared at the pottery inside the window. Later, I wrote this in my diary.

Nikki—Tuesday January 10, 2006

“Walking around the City of Inuyama was great, because I was independent for the first time in a while. The buildings get more interesting further in. Things are a little less clean and a little smaller. I saw run-down buildings with cool, blue tile roof (old-style), and I wondered how it came to be run down and what living there was like and what it had been like when it was first made and when it was made. I also noticed interesting signs and houses tucked in random places, including a sign (in English) about the remains of keidokan—an Inuyama clan school. I couldn’t figure out which were the remains—an old pottery shop, an alley with a small house in the background. There are also polished rocks and signs in kanji, perhaps marking points of interest, which I couldn’t read.

I find myself wondering more in Japan than I do in America. Everything makes me curious about how people live, what their story is. (My mind tends to romance things more.) Maybe this is because I don’t know, and I don’t even have the same cultural assumptions/ prejudices to fall back on. Or maybe that’s just what happens in new, beautiful places.”

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