Another day of meetings, this time in and around Tokyo. More ritual exchange of meeshi, more green tea, more polite smiles. I’ve explained all this before, so I’ll get down to the nitty-gritty, or maybe I should say the crunchy-munchy!
Lunch – we arrive in a Tokyo area unknown to my MIJ. We’re hungry. Food stalls beckon every few yards down the street, but my MIJ is perturbed. He doesn’t find what he wants. We wander to and fro until with a smile of glee he points to a black ideogram. “We go there!” he exclaims. We enter, and are greeted by a lady who ushers us upstairs. The dining room is in the traditional Japanese style, with rice paper doors and straw tatami mats. We remove our shoes and take our place on cushions placed before a low table. Note to self: in Japan one must avoid holey or dirty socks!
My MIJ explains we are lunching in an Unagi-ya – an eel restaurant! Our waitress appears, scuttering on the tatami wearing thick white woolly socks. Some consultation follows, then after a few minutes our lunch is served in a bento, a traditional lacquered wooden box. Opening the lid, our meal is revealed: grilled eels on a bed of boiled rice! We sprinkle them with Japanese pepper (milder than the black variety), then proceed to eat them. The eels have a delicate, meaty flavour, not unlike a good plaice fillet. “Makes you strong and potent!” says my MIJ. I do wonder why he insists on this point! As a side, we are served oshinko (Japanese pickles) and a bowl of broth. Most excellent and very Japanese! Eel restaurant information here!
More strengthening is called for after lunch, so we stop at a Caffé Segafredo, owned by the famous Italian coffee company. The espresso here is just as in Italy, at four times the price. But exactly what I need before our afternoon meeting!
Dinner – my MIJ has another appointment tonight, so he announces that I will be “looked after” by the packaging distributor who has accompanied us so far. The guy is friendly enough, and has even visited us in Italy, but speaks almost no English, so I wonder how we’ll get on. We meet at my hotel. To my surprise, a young woman accompanies him! I am introduced: “She Michiko!” Who is she exactly, I wonder? Wife? Secretary? Translator? Girlfriend???
We walk to the Ginza area, the central Tokyo upscale shopping street. Compare to Bond Street, Fifth Avenue, Via Condotti. Michiko speaks elementary English, certainly better than my rudimentary Japanese. Maybe the evening will be fun after all! We dine at an Uden restaurant, serving yet another style of Japanese cookery. Again, the floor is tatami-matted, so we remove our shoes at the entrance. The table this time is raised over a sunken well for the feet: apparently even Japanese get tired sitting cross-legged, so they have devised this method for greater comfort. The restaurant is full, mainly populated by Pretty Young Things on a night out. The PYTs shout to each other, laugh loudly and partake large quantities of alcohol – the world is the same all over!
Again, food is ordered for me and the Uden meal begins. The waitress arrives bearing a portable gas stove and an earthenware pot. She sets water to boil. Our starters arrive: Japanese cheese (remarkably like Gorgonzola with Branston’s pickles!) and yakitori skewers – grilled chicken breast, minced chicken meatballs and chicken cartilage. This last item is supposedly a delicacy, but tastes exactly as you would expect it to – as grilled chicken cartilage! I’ll pass on that, thank you!
The waitress appears again, bearing a large plate full of lettuce, other assorted greenery and raw minced chicken meatballs. The water in the pot is now boiling, so Michiko places all the ingredients in the pot and adds a dash of ground ginger. So this Uden is basically a chicken and veg. broth! We wait for about 15 minutes, stirring the pot until cooked to satisfaction. We eat the cooked chicken balls and veg., then spoon out the broth. Very warming! Kinoshita-san is fond of ice-cream, so this is what we have for dessert. Rather conventional, you may think, but not so! It turns out to be green tea ice-cream, served with rice flour dumplings and sweet beans! Overall an interesting experience, but I do prefer other styles of Japanese cooking.
And what of Michiko? Well, in the small talk during the meal I discover, in no particular order:
a) she lives in a flat outside Tokyo (hence is not my host’s wife)
b) works in Central Tokyo (hence is not his secretary or other colleague)
c) likes beer (and downs 5 large beers at a rate I have difficulty keeping up with)
d) is married!
I do wonder….