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Published: March 20th 2012
making chicken yakitori
My first couple days in Japan were spent mostly getting accustomed to the time change. On the first night I awoke around 3am just in time to experience my first earthquake, which was nothing major, but a quick reminder of my new location in the Pacific's 'ring of fire'. On Friday, a good friend of mine just happened to be here visiting his lovely girlfriend so we all met at a sushi-go-round in Yokosuka. Picking your food from the turnstile as it passes the table is amusing and each table even had a hot water tap to facilitate green tea. We continued the night at a nearby bar with a few drinks and conversation over bouts of screaming karaoke.
The weekend's weather was less than desirable, so not a whole lot was accomplished. For Saturday's dinner we made a joint effort to compile chicken yakitori and miso soup from scratch. This was my first introduction to making dashi stock, a simple melding of kelp and fish (seaweed and bonito flakes) returning a clear golden broth that tastes like a day spent near the breaking ocean. We did venture out eventually on Sunday to the supermarket down the street, where seeking
making miso soup
out certain ingredients was an entertaining challenge as very rarely is any of the labeling in English. I learned to deduce by searching for clues on the package such as graphics of cows for dairy or soy beans for soy milk. Sunday night's dinner starred an udon soup of epic proportions with ingredients including salmon, sweet potato, tofu, spring onion, cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, and of course fat, comforting noodles, all floating amidst our dashi stock.
Monday was my first time venturing out on my own. Come hell or high water, I was going to figure out how to get around. My first adventure was to visit the Misaki Fish Market and Aburatsubo Marine Park, not too far from my apartment. After gathering directions, I walked out the door to a blustery, but sunny day. The first step was to board a bus to the Keikyu Kurihama train station, which would've been fine except I had forgotten what the bus stop looked like (everything is in Japanese characters). There were a few minutes of panic and disappointment, but there was no way I was going back upstairs to lament in the apartment all day, so I waited on the sidewalk
gaijins cook Japanese: chicken yakitori and miso soup
until I saw a bus go by and followed it up the road until it stopped (bus stops have signs that are circular, the top quarter is red, the bottom white). I boarded the next bus and sat, straining to listen for my stop, with most likely a slight look of terror on my face. I arrived at the correct station and proceeded to board the correct train to Misakiguchi station which I then departed to the next round of bus stops feeling semi-confident so far. The trains are easy to use and actually have the stops in English and Japanese, there was some confusion at the bus stops though, since the stops are not in English. By luck, I got off at the correct bus stop and walked towards the port where I found the Misaki Fish Market just in time to view the last tunas being auctioned off. As part of my career as a fisheries biologist, I have visited many fish markets in the states, all of them less than fresh smelling. This market in Japan was clean and smelled of sweet ocean air, if it weren't for the massive frozen rocks of tuna sliding across the
ingredients for udon soup
floor, one may never have guessed it was a fish market. Many people labored between fork lifts, hoses, and ice pick tools to keep the work schedule efficient. The tuna are impressive, they are gutted and cleaned with the tail removed (so the buyers can view the flesh quality) before being flash frozen so as to keep it as fresh as possible, brought to the market, auctioned, and packed away for the buyers to take to restaurants. I observed this until the last fish was carted away and then took to wandering about the surrounding town. There are many restaurants serving Misaki tuna and I wandered through a seafood store observing live flounder, drying squid, and various sushi-grade cuts of fish. I decided to continue on to Aburatsubo Marine Park via walking since I had time to kill and wouldn't mind getting a view of the coastline. This route took me through neighborhoods and small marinas where I caught intoxicating whifs of drying seaweed swaying in the breeze. I noticed that in general, everything is paved over and what little spaces they can spare, the Japanese use it to plant beautifully practical vegetable gardens. After a while I realized I
gaijin cook Japanese: udon soup, salmon sashimi, and rice
was lost and stopped into a small post office/information center of some type. I exchanged konnichiwas with the two women at the front desk and proceeded to shrug my shoulders and say 'Aburatsubo Marine Park?', they giggled and pointed out the window to a large building perched on the edge of the point of land directly across the water from there. After a feeble attempt at trying to help me understand how to walk there, she gave up and said "You wait, my car." after which she proceeded to drive me to the park, about 5 minutes down the road. I was floored by the kindness and felt dumb when she tried to find out more about me, as all I could say was 'arigato, arigato!' (thank you) in reply to her questions in Japanese. To make matters even worse, I realized 30 minutes into wandering the marine park, that somewhere between the woman's vehicle and the dolphin show, I had managed to loose both my pen and brand new English-to-Japanese phrasebook. Moron! How could I do this on my first day out?!
Despite the park being slightly run down, I had an enjoyable time. Along with an
impressive and mostly cheesy dolphin/sea lion show, they had many large sharks, a tank full of rare sturgeon, and preserved pieces of a megamouth shark on display. It was particularly interesting to see the aquaria representative of the local environment as I am unfamiliar with many of the species in this part of the world. It also helped me identify some of the fish that I will no doubt be purchasing for food over the coming months. This time I chose to take the bus back to the train station, and was quite relieved when my apartment building came into sight. It's the small victories that count. For dinner we enjoyed steamed buns filled with tuna that I picked up in Misaki and a cucumber-seaweed salad. I consider the day a success and a first step to getting more familiar with transportation in such a foreign, but intriguing land.
After my first day wandering around Japan, I came to truly realize my new found near complete illiteracy. I cannot speak, much less remotely recognize any Japanese alphabet characters. It is a humbling feeling, that makes one feel as if you are standing on the outside looking in, an invisible
alien stalker among the Japanese culture. It makes you appreciate hand gestures, guttural throat sounds (mmm, uh huh, etc.), and emphatic facial expressions like never before. I imagine that long periods of time immersed in such a situation would cause one to feel very lonely. However, I now realize the importance of learning the basics of Japanese and will now hopefully accelerate that process.
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