Of tuna and toilets

28May08

Last week’s Correspondent’s Diary in the Economist came from Tokyo, and explored the wonders of Japanese food. It’s an interesting read for me, as all the locations mentioned are in Tokyo, and thus offer a contrast to the restaurants and cafes in my little corner of Wakayama prefecture.

Sushi, of course, is ubiquitous in Japan. Tsukiji Market, mentioned in the article, is the largest fish market in the world, and the base from which many hundreds of varieties of fish are sold to locations around the globe. I visited it in January of this year, rising early to watch the main activity of the day, and it was one of the highlights of the trip (as well as probably the most dangerous place I visited – the electric carts carrying fish around the enormous market don’t like to slow down for tourists). And it’s true that the sushi found in the myriad of little restaurants in the area is very good. If one is an expert, it’s probably the best in the world (with, sometimes, prices to match).

A campaign is afoot to move Tsukiji – a four hundred year old market, providing jobs for an estimated 60,000 people – further away from the city centre, to a purpose-built facility in Tokyo Bay. This would be likely to benefit the big wholesaler firms, who buy and sell tuna for phenomenal prices. But the smaller companies, who sell to sushi shops and the occasional private buyer, would lose out, as would the huge network of surrounding businesses that support the market. It would be a tragedy for the district, not to mention the loss of a huge tourist attraction. It will be interesting to see if the campaign is successful.

My local sushi restaurant can’t quite compare to the reputation of Tsukiji. But Wakayama is a fishing area. We too can get fish straight off the boat, and local tuna is particularly delicious. There are a few small restaurants with expert sushi chefs, but a cheaper option is one of the kaiten zushi establishments, with their conveyor belts. My favourite has little touch screens to order anything that you don’t see on the belts, in a nod to Japan’s love of technology. The sushi may not reach gourmet grade, but to me it tastes pretty good.

Also mentioned in the article are the combinis, the convenience stores. Mostly belonging to chains such as Lawsons and Family Mart, they dot the landscape with almost disturbing frequency. A really really rural town is one with only one combini. My town has four or five, for around 20,000 people.

(They are only beaten by the vending machines, which are everywhere. A five minute walk anywhere there are tarmacked roads will pass six of them. Some friends and I once had a barbecue by the side of a river, miles from any houses or shops and a fair walk from any roads. As the sun went down, our party was lit by the moon , the barbecue, and the light from a vending machine display.)

Combinis really are convenient – they sell everything. From stationery, to cosmetics and toiletries, to food for every occasion. The bento, lunchboxes often involving noodles of many kinds, are often surprisingly tasty. Other food is less appetising – Japan is not a country of sugar-lovers, so the pastries are often a little suspect, with anything containing egg a low point. The sandwich – made of white bread with the crusts removed and helpfully sealed at the edges – has never looked appealing to me. But the nadir, in my opinion, are the hamburgers. They contain so many preservatives that they don’t require any kind of refrigeration. I’ve never dared try one. But of course, like convenience stores everywhere else in the world, they sell food to keep you going and enough varieties of coffee to remove any need to sleep. And, as I said before, they are everywhere.

And of course, anyone who stays in Japan longer than a few days will come across the izkayas, for which there is no decent English translation. At least not for the ones mentioned, which serve high-class gourmet food in a informal setting. But outside of Tokyo, izakayas are a little different. In rural towns, izakayas are closer to the word that is usually used in translations – “pub”.

At my local izakaya, the food is decent. Yakitori, chicken grilled on skewers with a bewildering variety of sauces, is a main feature of the menu. Side dishes include salads, vegetables grilled or fried, or varieties of sashimi, raw fish, on plates of thinly-sliced daikon – a Japanese radish of comedic proportions.

But the focus is less on food than on beer, and the conversation that accompanies it. At the counter, one can chat to the owner or the other customers, or watch the baseball game on the TV in the corner. Larger groups can congregate around the low tables on a raised platform behind, after first carefully removing their shoes because of the tatami mats. In rural towns, the clientele is mostly male (and in towns with aging populations like mine, mostly male and over 50), but families (even with small children) visit too for meals or a chat with the owner (who may be male or female), and the owner’s friends.

The izakayas are small – often there is room for fewer than fifteen customers – but they are numerous. In my town of not all that many people, there is one tucked away on every corner. And they are unfailingly welcoming. There will always be someone in there who wants to practise their English, or who will submit to beginner-level Japanese, or who will discuss the latest Yomiuri Giants game, or who will pour you a glass of beer. Often all four simultaneously.

And of course, no article about Japan would be complete without an exploration of the country’s toilet technology. And this really is something that is mostly confined to big cities and upmarket hotels. Families may have a heated toilet seat (not something to be sniffed at in a country with a curious aversion to central heating or insulation), and some restaurants may have a ‘silencer’ – a small speaker that plays the sound of running water to cover your activity. But the elaborate bidet functions and washing arrangements are very rare in rural area. In many parts of Japan, toilets are much like they are in the West. And in many more, the squat toilet is alive and well. When they appear in restaurants and especially izakayas, one should be very careful. Too much beer and a “squatter” can lead to a somewhat messy end to the evening.

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