Thursday, December 8, 2011

Miyazaki, Japan, and the mother of all meals

As the flight readies to land, the air hostess notices my lit ipod screen and fusses about it needing to be shut down.  I tell her that it does not have an on-off switch.  Having just finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs on the plane, I want to tell her that Jobs deliberately did not install on-off switches on his ipods, that genius though he may be, he hadn’t prepared for the eventuality that I was faced with.  She looked pissed, I tried to explain, then mercifully the screen went to sleep, and she went about her way.

All of my trips to Japan so far have been in and around Tokyo.  This is the first time that I travel south, to the city of Miyazaki, on the southernmost island of Japan, just a couple of hours from Taipei.  The domestic flight from Tokyo flies in from the ocean on a crisp, clear night.  A single police car with a flashing red light stands at guard on a narrow access road against the edge of the water, the runway a stone’s throw from the ocean.  Miyazaki is calm, and cool—palm trees grace the dividers of large highways, the temperature is at 9 C. 

After a confusing sequence of conversations that resembles the characteristics of a diode, the taxi driver eventually takes me to my intended hotel.  I have seen this repeatedly with Japanese taxidrivers.  The key moment is the one when you disclose to him your intended location.  If he nods a curt “hai”, you will arrive at your hotel without drama.  If he repeats the hotel name and throws it back to you as a question, then you are in for a sightseeing tour.  And, given his legendary honesty, if he ends up taking you to the wrong place as an interim pit stop, then he will not charge you the extra amount incurred. 

Japanese hotels have the most high tech bathrooms that I have ever seen.  A low rumble from the hotel room toilet greets me.  There are various functions available to the seated adventurer, including a seat warmer and a couple of plumbing options that can turn it into a small waterpark for your rear end.  I am confident that in a couple of years these will come Ethernet ready.

I go for a pre-dawn jog—my jetlagged body responds well to the bracing air.  There are few cars and just a handful of joggers around.  I take a path by the river, bordered on one side by line of dim lights set on concrete posts.  The line of the river curves on the other side.  At the end of the path there is a small, circular concrete amphitheater with steps leading down to the river.  I stand there by the river and take a  break. The place is empty, except for the dim figure of another jogger running past.  It is a beautiful calm sight.

Dinner that night was a welcome,  formal multi-course meal at a traditional Japanese restaurant with pine woodwork and Japanese style furniture.  These dinners grind you in a game of crushing seduction, dinners that stretch into hours, course by course, where you-- discombobulated by alcohol, by jetlag, by the unfamiliarity of the language, by exotic flavors, give in willingly to the strange food goblins that toss you from lap to lap till you are spent.  The meal starts with a threesome of little appetizer sized bowls of angler fish liver, oyster and protein rich soy skin, followed by one of the most gorgeous soups that I have ever had: a smoky, light, clear broth with matsutake mushrooms, shitake mushrooms and pieces of chicken.  The dishes come, sequenced against one another, like the ebb and flow of a great river.  Sashimi arrives: tuna—probably from New York, bream and mackerel and a giant lobster sized shrimp.  My neighbour passes over the next dish-- mushroom with sperm of Cod.  I decide to go for it.  If I could have eggs, this could’nt hurt--what was good in the goose was certainly good in the gander.  Then, following some chunks of Miyazaki beef, a point of pride with the locals, we wrap up with seaweed, fish egg, shrimp, a salmon and soy gratin and fruits.  This, was the mother of all meals.

The hotel was a welcome walk away and as I exit into the night air and head to the street, my Japanese friend motions me to hold off for a bit.  There was a commotion about 25 meters ahead.  Three young women in tight, baby doll getups, flurried around a cab.   One frisked up to in the restaurant in impossible heels and after a brief conversation with the staff, returned.  A slim man in his late fifties in a suit emerged from the taxi, seemingly agitated.  And then after some more consultation, the women and man got into another taxi and drove off.  This was the Yakuza, I was told, and while they usually did not bother the common man, it was best to avoid them.

The next day we drive into the countryside.  Japanese countryside looks like Assamese countryside that has been Europeanized. We drove on a narrow road raised on an embankment, either side of which were small marked and bordered fields for cultivation, some of them paddy.  Grass and shrubs grew at the edges of concrete footpaths that were stain darkened by the humidity.  Neat houses with sloping roofs lay adjacent to the fields, connected by narrow lanes.  There were hills in the background, bamboo outgrowths by the road.  This could be Assam, this was a very Asian landscape, except that the houses had the ship shape fittings of Swiss dwellings, there were solar panels on the roofs, late model cars were parked by the farmers houses, and a bicyclist wearing a Bissell outfit hunched over a road bike cornered a bend in the road.  And there were no temples.

On the way back at Narita Airport in Tokyo, I look in vain for a store that would sell Japanese ceramics and traditional pottery, things like that.  The entire place is filled with booze and perfume shops, kitschy Japanese objects and overpriced Western designer stores filled with stuff that looks crass against the muted delicacy of Japanese design.  I give up and retreat to the Kookai Noodle Shop for a bowl of Ramen.  Always guaranteed to uplift a tired traveler.  But more on than later.

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