In 2005, a few weeks prior to Thanksgiving, I went on a work sponsored trip to Japan, which is where the parent corporation was headquartered.
The journey was billed as an award, but to be candid, if you were at a certain level in the organization with enough longevity, your time would ultimately come. I wasn’t in a rush to travel so far away from my husband and daughter, but that year, when they reached into the hat, my name came out. So on the 20th anniversary of my start date, I boarded a plane with a few other folks and headed to the Far East.
In retrospect, it was a trip of a lifetime. We were treated like visiting heads of state, with a dedicated tour guide who escorted us to peaceful temples overlooking reflecting pools all over Kyoto, onto the bullet train that slipped by the cloud-topped vision of Mount Fuji, to Tokyo. The “work” of the week involved touring Tokyo’s fashionable shops with executives from America, meeting with Japanese counterparts to exchange knowledge, and standing in front of a crowd of local management to give a one minute speech (in the native tongue) thanking our host company for the visit. The last involved late night rehearsals and much panic, but what’s one minute in the scheme of things?
Other than during that required speech, there was enough English around to get by. So besides a mystery surrounding toilets which I will not go into here (except to add that the seats were heated!!), to me, one of the largest cultural differences we experienced surrounded food. As palate sophistication goes I lean, albeit slightly, toward the adventurous side, but this week vaulted me well over the top.
Over the course of the week, we ate sea urchin (slimy), jellyfish (crunchy), squid (call it calamari and I’m home) eel, and octopus. Mind you, most of it appeared in front of us, well, in its virgin state. One night we were relieved to walk to a restaurant that specialized in something called Ishiyaki, where food is grilled on a hot stone. When the squid tentacles on the hot grill began to wiggle, my table mate and I burst into a fit of hysterical giggles. Composing ourselves, we swallowed duck, tofu, chicken necks and seaweed.
Mid-week, we traveled to what was billed as a traditional country inn, and kimono clad women presented us with artfully designed platters of sashimi--tuna, sea breen, squid, salmon eggs and more octopus, before being rewarded with miso soup, cooked beef and chicken. Wheat gluten, soyba noodles with tempura, and cutlass fish enhanced our chopstick talents.
On our second to last day, we climbed into taxis at 4:00 a.m., heading for the renowned Tsukjii fish market, where vendors auctioned off fish that had been offloaded moments earlier. After watching men hacking warehouses full of just-caught fish with machetes, we wandered to a market-side café and ordered sushi for a pre-dawn breakfast. The highest quality fish in the world arrives at that location. Still I wasn’t surprised when the raw tuna I tried to force down at that early hour threatened to swim back up. That night, the menu included sukiyaki, Kobe beef sautéed in broth with veggies, finished with a dip in raw egg.
Though it was an adventure I’ll remember forever, when I arrived home after a sixteen hour plane flight, nothing tasted better than the plate of jarred spaghetti that my husband and daughter served. Nowadays, I'll eat sushi. But last night, peering at plastic wrapped plates inside the fridge, moaning about creative recipes to enhance four-day-old food, memories of my Japan trip trickled back. I didn’t write much about our travels. I saved memories by taking hundreds of pictures, and jotting notes about the food. And with my 5:00 a.m. breakfast of out-of-the water fresh tuna in mind, I decided I could embrace turkey one more night.