This is the eighth installment of a multi-post series on my trip to Japan. If you haven't read those that came before, I recommend you go BACK TO THE BEGINNING! Otherwise, have at it!
And so, I found myself on the Goto Islands. Technically, I was on Fukue, but the film crew always referred to it as Goto, so I shall as well. From where I stood at the airport, I could see tall hills covered in the most lush greenery. It was a very "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore" moment. Inside Tokyo I had been very aware that I wasn't in America anymore, but it was more about the language and the people around me. Now, it was very much about the landscape. It didn't look anything like where I've spent most of my life.
Did it look like the image of Japan that I had formed? In someways, but I've never spent a lot of time researching or looking at pictures of, the southern parts of Japan. Honshu and Hokkaido have always been my focus. What really threw me now was the presence of palm trees. And I wasn't alone. Saori-San told me that she rarely left Honshu, and it was really weird for her to see these subtropical plants. I myself hadn't seen them since I was ten and spent a week in South Carolina.
As for the climate that supported all this greenery and palm trees, it was damp and warm. We were actually there during the monsoon season, but amazingly, it only rained a little on the last day I was there. The skies, however, were overcast, and there was a certain level of mugginess that I just had to get used to.
The equipment and luggage was loaded, the airport filming was done, and we all piled into the van. We had a new driver, who would later give me a sticker and a four leaf clover that he found. We drove away from the airport, and headed to the town of Fukue. My eyes roved across everything, taking in as much as I could. The town was up against the ocean, there were lots of boats and little harbors. I saw something to interest me everywhere, even in the most mundane things, like the shape of the buildings, the designs on the concrete walls, and the writing on the roadway. I'm sure most of the pictures I took on that first car ride would seem totally mundane to most Japanese people. But, I don't have to worry about that with you, dear reader, do I?
At one intersection the van stopped and You-San directed my attention to a beautiful stone wall, surrounded by a mote. There was a bridge across this mote and a grand gateway. It looked like something out of a samurai tale. "That's the high school," said Saori-San, translating for You-San. "It used to be the castle." As if to give credence to this statement, two girls in the classic Japanese school uniform crossed the bridge and went inside. I was fascinated, and even more so when I saw a huge heron-like bird sitting on the wall. "Is that a real bird?" I said stupidly, and luckily, no one heard me.
After a short drive, the van pulled over on the side of the street and we got out. You-San wanted to film me walking across a bridge and looking around at the scenery. You would think this was a pretty straight forward affair, but of course it took a lot of explaining, directing, hand signals, and do-overs. I'm pretty sure that I must have been a very frustrating subject for You-San.
When we were done, You-San told me that we were going to get some lunch, then head to kamaboko place. He told me that Goto was not a popular place for tourists, especially not foreign ones. There was a small amount of business men who liked to come to the island for fishing, but that was it. He had been there a lot, both in the past and in preparation for filming.
We stoped the van in a modest looking alleyway, and I waited in the van while the crew conferred outside. Just another instance of me sitting around while others spoke in words I did not understand, definitely talking about me, and deciding my fate. It is a weird feeling, for sure. Finally, Saori-San came to get me and told me what You-San wanted. I was to walk down the street, take notice of the entry to the restaurant and say something like "this looks interesting!" and go inside. Pretty straight forward, but they went on. "When you get inside, say 'konichiwa' and the owner will come out and talk with you." Oh god, okay, I guess I can do that. "Just have a conversation with her, and we will see how it goes." Have a conversation? Sure, throw me in the deep end.
But, I didn't have to wait for this conversation to humiliate myself. I managed to walk right past the entryway to the restaurant without realizing that was where they had been talking about. "Stop, come back!" It was a real face palm moment for everyone. In my defense, there were two doorways, and the one they wanted me to go through looked a little bit less like a restaurant entry than the other, and was tucked into some greenery.
Take two. This time I walked into the restaurant correctly, even remembering to pretend that I was making a new discovery on my own. Who knew that so much acting was involved in filming a documentary style show? Inside, I was prepared to say my lines and start the conversation, but had to pause while my eyes adjusted to the dim interior. The tv crew crowded in behind me. "Konichiwa?" I said tentatively.
I was standing in the entry of a restaurant, which was dim owing to there being no windows. Around the corner I could see booths, partially hidden by hanging noren. There was a familiar running water sound, like the aquarium section of a pet store. Directly in front of me were a couple huge tanks of water, which housed some very big colorful fish. Not like in American Chinese buffets, where they have large koi tanks where you wait for your table. These were clearly ocean fish that had just been caught and were waiting to be butchered.
A moment later, a woman came out of a doorway to the side, which lead to the kitchen. As with most of the women I met in Japan, she reached about to my chin. Her face was very kind, and her manner towards me was very welcoming. Before I could say anything more than hello and introduce myself, she lead the way around the corner and sat me down at one of the booths. The camera crew crowded into the corner and everyone focused on me. You-San told me to ask what their restaurant's specialty was.
She told me that their signature dish was udon, with their own house made noodles. Goto is famous for their camellia flowers--those big, red, tropical flowers I had seen depicted in the airport. One of the things they do with those flowers is make camellia oil, which is used for several things, such as beauty products like shampoo and soaps. Another use, specific to the island, is for their udon noodles, which get coated in the oil after they are stretched into shape. This is partially for flavor, and partially to keep the noodles from breaking down in the broth.
She explained all of this to me, and then added that their was one more ingredient that made their udon soup so special. That ingredient was kamaboko, made on their island, from fish out of their bay. I asked her to bring me a bowl, and away she went. While we waited, You-San and Saori-San sat down across from me. You-San told me that he had been to the island a lot recently, scouting out locations and communicating with the family that I would be working with. According to him, this was the best restaurant in town.
"Now, when the soup comes," he said, clearly already realizing that I was a wet blanket in human form, "act very excited to see your first Japanese kamaboko." He mimed the sort of reaction he was looking for, throwing back his hands and gasping, a look of rapturous joy on his face. Yeah, that shouldn't be too difficult. Of course, when the bowl was set down in front of me I did what felt like exuberant acting to me, and was, in fact, probably half the level he was looking for. I was not born for television.
As some of you may recall, the very first time I had kamaboko it was in a bowl of udon soup. That was in a Japanese-American restaurant, and though it was delicious, it was nothing compared to the real thing. Steam rose up from the bowl, carrying with it a most enticing smell. The topping was beautifully laid out, with some vegetables, and other trimmings, but I only had eyes for the kamaboko.
There it was, perched atop the broth and noodles, two small slices of the classic kamaboko. It was delicately sliced so that the face of it was ridged like a fan. I exuded as much delight as I could, grinning like an idiot and exclaiming with delight. "Wow, my first Japanese kamaboko!" This seemed to satisfy You-San, and I was able to move forward with the process of eating. I lightly gripped it between my chopsticks and lifted it to my mouth. It was divine. The texture, firmness, and most of all, flavor, were spot on. It was much better than the kamaboko I had eaten at Ichiban, and, of course, worlds apart from the "kamaboko" I had made at home.
After I had devoured the single morsel, and expressed my devotions, I tried the noodles and broth, which were also amazing. I spoke a little bit more to the owner, though unfortunately I don't really remember much of that conversation. Finally, the camera's moved away from me, and You-San gave the word that we were all done with this segment. I could now eat my lunch in peace.
The film crew all moved into a separate booth to film another bowl of udon, while Saori-San, Mine-San, and I were left to our own devices. Saori-San opened up the menu, scanned it and pointed out different dishes to me. One of the items that she read off had the word eel in it. "I love eel," I said, which is true it's one of my very favorite types of meat. She told me that it wasn't really eel, the way that unadon is. Or that it was a different type. I asked if it tasted similar, and she said that it sort of did. I decided to order it and try for myself.
While we waited for our food, I was able to look around me a bit. Running parallel to the booths was a long bar, with a line of empty stools. Behind this bar was the kitchen, open for the world to see. There were perhaps four cooks in there, though their lunch rush hadn't really started yet. They wore white chef jackets and black, Japanese style head scarves. In-between the bar counter and the kitchen was a row of open fishtanks, where most of the bubbling and pump sounds were coming from. In these waters swam a myriad of different fish, waiting to be selected by the patrons and sliced up into a variety of dishes, mostly sashimi.
The sight was fascinating, but I got distracted by my meal's arrival. This eel, or eel like creature, was about the size of the jumbo shrimp they use for tempura, and it was in a similarly battered state. Two long, golden, crispy fillets were sitting on top of a small bowl of rice. They were decorated with perfectly browned onions and shiitake mushrooms, and finished off with a drizzle of rich brown sauce. Along with this dish was a small bowl of clear broth soup with enoki mushrooms and strips of fried tofu. Lastly, a little plate of pickled cucumber and another yellow vegetable I couldn't identify. It was so perfect I could have cried.
Do I even need to tell you that it was one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten? The crispness of the batter, the mild flavor of the "eel", the perfectly prepared rice. (I'm making myself hungry just writing about it). The sauce was sweet, and there was just enough of it to accent the savory flavors of the rest. The soup had a wonderful savory, mushroom, earthiness to it, and the pickles were crisp and salty. I ate it all, and enjoyed every bite.
We stayed there for a while, as the crew had to eat their lunches after the filming was done. I felt relaxed, sated and happy. Even the prospect of more filming that day was not enough to disturb my piece of mind. Of course, then my stomach decided to protest my delicious lunch. I have been cursed with a constitution that gives every affliction a stomach ache. Stressed? Stomachache. Headache? Stomachache. Nervous? Stomachache. Jet lag? Stomachache. Luckily, this time it wasn't very bad, but I did have reason to be annoyed with that organ.
At last, it was time to leave the restaurant, and for me to start to think nervously about the next stage. It was time to go to the kamaboko company, where I would meet the masters who would teach me all about kamaboko. I was both exhilarated and apprehensive. And of course, this is where I must leave you until next time!
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Until next time, dream big!