Published: June 19th 2011June 15th 2011
Getting out of lovely but sleepy Shizuoka for awhile, I go west to dine like a geisha and nosh like a native while reuniting with old friends in Kansai (関西).
I. Button up: Kyoto
During Golden Week, the string of Japanese public holidays in May, I was reunited with my former Japanese host 父 father, Minoru, who lives outside of Osaka. He's 76, very old-school Japanese and teaches traditional Japanese arts (tea ceremony 茶道, calligraphy 書道, and flower arrangement 活け花) as his profession. He's quite the eccentric (makes a lot of funny noises, especially when eating) and often lectures me on such topics as the social acceptability of female alcohol consumption, or the proper time frame in which one must send a thank-you note. He is all kinds of awesome, though, and I love the guy...he's my Japanese grandpa.
So, off through bumper-to-bumper holiday traffic we went, Minoru and I, for a nice, proper and traditional lunch in Japan's old capital of Kyoto. Ever since about 800, Kyoto has been synonymous with culture in Japan; it's a really lovely city, full of narrow streets that twist and turn around beautiful shrines, and even the odd geisha sighting. To this
day, Japanese visitors don traditional dress for their big day out in Kyoto - partially for admiration, yes, but more to feel Kyoto's
vibe at it's maximum - oh, and look the part for all of the photo ops. No one does the tourist thing quite like the Japanese; anyone who has observed Japanese tourists in their natural habitat (read: ANY tourist destination in the world, major or minor) will know what I'm talking about.
For lunch we had a little bit of everything - let's just call it Japanese tapas, otherwise known as Kaiseki (会席). Seated in a private room, we were served by a young woman in a beautiful yukata (summer kimono), taking great care in every movement she made, even carefully drawing her wide sleeve back as she presented each artfully-arranged dish (remember, this is Japan, even my kindy students can artfully arrange). More about art than about food, our Kaiseki was made up of multiple, intricate courses; each dish seasonal, each dish beautiful, and each dish gone in just a few bites.
A brand-new approach to food for me. Probably a healthier way of eating, although I remember more of what everything looked
like than what it tasted like. Personally I like my eating out to be a little more buttoned-down, but I'd like to once again give Japanese culture a grand bow for their uncanny ability to turn anything into a work of art.
II. Button down: Osaka
The following day, I got my unbuttoned wish, meeting up with another blast from my exchange student past, Masae, for some Kansai greasy goodness in Osaka. If Kyoto is old Japan, then Osaka is new Japan. Osaka is laid-back, Osaka is bright neon lights, Osaka is sizzling street food and skyscrapers. The people there seem to love their chitter-chatter, and why wouldn't you, when you could speak Osaka-ben (大阪弁); their silly, and sometimes almost inane, dialect.
Masae loves eating as much as I do, and she knows exactly where to take me. Into the elevator we go, all the way up to the 32nd floor of the Hankyu building, to dine at Fugetsu (風月), a popular chain that does some of best okonomiyaki around. I like to translate Osaka's specialty, okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) as
whatever the hell you like!
But actually, that's almost exactly what it means - like T.I. said, like Burger King says - you
can have whatever you like...or have it your way - fried. Don't forget fried.
When I was last in Japan as a young girl of 17, and I had the opportunity to try okonomiyaki, I thought it looked pretty good. Well, until everything else that came after that point was added on top. By the time it was finished off with fluttering fish flakes (I'm not kidding, they move) I was wondering what happened to that thing that I kinda wanted to eat about 10 minutes prior.
But anyway, that was then. My palate has matured to now include a love even for fish flakes, although it's still a little unnerving to see my food move. And it's really pretty hard for an all-American to not like okonomiyaki; it's got special sauce, it's got mayo, and it's a pancake to boot. Everyone knows those fatty fatty fat fats in America love them some pancakes. Yes, we do! Calling it a pancake, though, is a bit of a stretch. It's a "savory pancake", so Lonely Planet tells me. Well, it's round like a pancake, anyway.
Here's how it goes: chopped cabbage, flour, grated yam (remember the slimy tororo
Masae shows me the way; cut it like a pizza.
from my last entry? it helps to hold it all together) green onion and egg, mixed together with "whatever you like", of course (often pork, or shrimp, or both, but potato and cheese in my case). Then, smack! grilled on the teppan 鉄板 hot plate right in front of you. Flipped over a couple times by the adept waitress, and finally topped with sweet, brown special sauce, mayo, fish flakes (かつおぼし) and a sprinkling of seaweed (青のり).
Yum. Although we then had to walk all around the city just to lessen the food guilt, and it was probably a stroke of luck that the line for takoyaki (たこ焼き) - doughy balls of fried octopus, Osaka's second-best specialty - would have been a half-hour wait! Guess holiday crowds are an international annoyance. Oh well, gotta save something for next time.
So I buttoned up, and buttoned down. Now I just have to unbutton full-stop!
There are more photos below