Jet-lagged, I wake up at the New Otani at 4:30 and can't get back to sleep. I'm not due at my company's office till 9:30, so I take the subway to Tsukiji market, which supplies fish for all of Japan. On TV, the Tokyo subway is always packed, with monitors to shove you inside the cars. At 5 a.m. it's empty. I admire the user interface of the route map, stations you've passed in gray behind you, the ones ahead lit up.
I don't speak Japanese except a few polite phrases I've mastered from watching Kurosawa movies and reading "How to Do Business in Japan," and the names of sushi. I'm still wary about etiquette: how to give and receive a business card at the same time while bowing. What happens if I drop the card and embarrass myself? Bump heads?
I've imagined Tsukiji as a sushi lover's paradise, endless rows of pristinely carved fish, like a giant game of dominoes. So I'm unprepared for workers in knee-high rubber boots hefting whole tunas, and the buckets of blood. It's the size of a football stadium. I stagger out into the thick August heat and find a Starbucks, momentarily comforted by air conditioning and Western toilets.
That night, because no one from my company offers to take me to dinner, I settle for sushi at the hotel. There are no prices on the menu, but I order expertly. No one remarks on the novelty of an American woman with a platinum buzzcut alone on business. When the bill comes, it's 18,000 yen, about $170. The real crisis of the trip is still ahead.
On Saturday, I take the shinkansen north to spend the weekend with my cousin who's teaching in Fukushima prefecture. We soak in the hot spring water at an onsen and climb up inside the walls of a fortress. It's late for lunch, and walking down the main street in the heat, everything seems to be closed.
Finally we find an open door and wander into an empty restaurant. No English menu. Keith speaks a little Japanese but hasn't learned to read Kanji yet. He asks what's good, and the server says "everything." Half-afraid they aren't really open, we blindly point to items on the menu, "this one, and that one and one of these." When the food comes, it's delicious, even though we have no idea what we ordered. By now, we're sure the server and the chef are in the kitchen laughing at us.
I catch the train back to Tokyo, and as I climb the stairs from the subway, spy a modest sushi bar. It's filled with salarymen on their way home. I pull plates from the conveyor belt: anago, ama-ebi, shiro maguro, all juicy and delectable. Oishii. I bow my head. Delicious. The chef grins. Even though I'm still full from lunch, I can't stop. I walk to the register, hoping I have enough cash. But the whole feast costs only 2500 yen ($20). It's my best meal in Tokyo, the one moment that lives up to expectations. It's also the last time I'll feel completely at ease for a long time.
words: Diana J. Wynne, California (The Daily Interface)
photo: Ludowika Swoboda, Austria (Maldives photos)