Weird and Wonderful Food and Drink
I was complemented on my curry udon eating technique today because of the lack of curry sauce on my white coat – little did they know I spilled it on my trousers instead. Curry udon consists of udon (duh), which are thick wheat noodles, in a curry sauce with pork and some vegetables. It’s one of my lunchtime favourites. This is mainly because it is one of the only ones I know the name of, along with gomaninja soba, a sesame based cold soba dish. The menu is all in Japanese in the hospital canteen so I rely on the doctors and other students to translate for me, and when I can’t be bothered I just say “kare soba, kudasai” (curry soba, please). Almost everything I’ve eaten here has been new to me. I thought I had a decent idea of what Japanese cuisine was, but this place has blown me away. They have so many different foods, and countless variations on those foods.
Last night I had dinner with the other international students at a robatayaki place. Unfortunately, as I quickly found out, it isn’t a dinner event combining robots and teriyaki (though that might not be far off what the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku –link- is like). Robatayaki is Japanese BBQ, where you sit round a cooking pit and the chef prepares meat, fish, vegetables, rice on a grill. You get to watch your food cooking, and then it’s presented to you on a long paddle. I wasn’t too adventurous this time, and stuck to chicken kebabs, tuna in soy sauce, and onigiri (rice balls) with miso soup, though the guy next to me ordered squid so of course I had to try it again. I still don’t see the appeal. Maybe if you’re into rubber you might get a kick out of it, but it didn’t have a particularly distinctive flavour. I’ve tried squid in monja, two types of sashimi, and now BBQ squid. Doubtless I’ll be offered it prepared in a completely different way. I have eaten deep fried squid at home before and enjoyed it, but that was mainly because it didn’t resemble the taste or texture of squid. I think I like “not squid” more than I like squid itself. Fried octopus was better than I expected, and I would consider ordering it again. I had it at the izakaya (Japanese pub) on Monday night, along with tuna, squid and some other sashimi, fried eel, fried salmon, and a heap of what looked like a cross between noodles and beansprouts. On closer inspection I was somewhat horrified, but intrigued. They were tiny white fish with pinprick black eyes, and their bland taste was supposed to act as a palate cleanser. All it did was coat my palate with small white fish. I think I’ll stick with sorbet in future, as it is less likely to give me nightmares. There are a lot of foods I would like to bring back and share with everyone at home, but tiny white nightmare fish is not one of them.
Many years ago in Europe, the available drinking water quality was so poor that people drank beer instead as it was safer. They probably would’ve drank whiskey if the same thing was true in Japan today. Whiskey is ridiculously cheap here, perhaps half the price of the UK. And as a result of that, whiskey-based drinks are everywhere. Highball, whiskey sour, whiskey cocktails, and the simple watered whiskey are very popular. You can get a 500 ml bottle of good whiskey for £7, and cheap stuff for £4/5. I surprised they don’t serve it draft here. Last night at dinner, beer was 430 yen and a highball was 350 yen. How can whiskey be cheaper than beer? Tax. According to my local sources, beer is taxed more heavily than whiskey and sake, and as a result it can be a pricey choice on a night out. In other words, Japan is a cheap place to get drunk. It seems counterintuitive that the lower percentage alcoholic beverage would be taxed more heavily, driving people towards higher percentages of alcohol and potentially more harm. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Japan is a weird place with many contrasts and contradictions. Proper multistep handwashing for scrubbing into surgery is not widely enforced, yet everyone wears a mask. Your hands are in direct contact with the patient, so surely they are the more important factor. Additionally, there is no good evidence to suggest wearing surgical masks actually reduces the risk of wound infection. So what’s the point? I don’t know, but I suspect it is a cultural phenomenon that has found its way into surgical practice here. What I also don’t know, is where I put the draft of my Tsukiji fish market blog entry. I wrote it all down so I wouldn’t forget, and now my little pad is missing. Hopefully it will turn up soon. It was another interesting place, but I would like to go back and try some of the best sushi in Tokyo.
I have tried to fit a lot into my time in Tokyo, but the more time I spend here the more I realise that it isn’t about how many places you visit, but the experiences you take away from those places. After a fairly standard start in the hospital, we were sent off to go sightseeing. The typhoon draws ever closer to Tokyo, and it seems to be bringing rain showers. The rain stops as quickly as it starts, but if you aren’t the fastest draw with an umbrella, then you’re likely to get caught out. I considered taking a trip up to Ueno to see old Tokyo, but the drizzle was dampening my touristy side. Instead, I took a walk back to Daimon station via some of the side streets to see if there were any interesting shops. Nothing jumped out at me, except a little camera shop/photolab. It’s amazing that enough people here still shoot with film cameras to keep film developers in business. Since I’ve been going there every morning on the subway, I haven’t been overly impressed with the area around Daimon station. There are no interesting shops and I haven’t been drawn into any of the restaurants (though I did notice a Japanese oyster one that looked good today) and I thought it was just a place you passed through on the way to somewhere else. I thought that until Masaco, my host, got me a tourist information brochure on the area. I hadn’t even thought of tourist information, as obvious as it sounds, but I suppose I had always fallen back on my guides. Often the guides are too detailed, and I just want a quick summary to see what there is to see or do in an area. I just happened to be reading the brochure yesterday, in a coffee shop before dinner over a glass of blood orange juice (it was the only thing I could pronounce that was not coffee or Guinness) when I came across the Tokyo World Trade Centre. Lo and behold, it was right beside Daimon station, and while the observatory wasn’t free (just over £3), it is worth the small price tag.
I am writing this section from the observatory floor in a comfy chair, overlooking the city that has overwhelmed and astounded me from the very beginning. And it keeps impressing. Rather than a tourist trap filled with camera wielding folk and struggling to get a human-free photo of the stunning surroundings, it feels more like a relaxed lounge and is relatively empty. I’m relaxing with a can of Boss café au lait, just being a boss at blogging. I had zero expectations of canned coffee, but this one is actually pretty good. I would go as far as saying it is the best coffee I have had this trip. I suppose that doesn’t mean much when the only other coffee I have had has been from Starbucks, courtesy of the hospital. People love iced tea and coffee here, and the coffee I can get behind, but the tea is often awful. Most of it is unflavoured, and I don’t know what kind of leaves they’re brewing it from, but they must have been marked by several cats. Dreadful, but everyone seems to drink it so I end up drinking it anyway. I suspect the more you drink of it, the more your brain suppresses your taste receptors, allowing you to enjoy culinary delights such as shark.
Though this afternoon hasn’t been packed with activities, and another day has gone by where I haven’t ticked something off the list, I am enjoying myself. Just sitting here and watching the world go by is an experience in itself. I’ll definitely have to get an office here when my inheritance comes through from that nice Nigerian prince who emailed me. Seriously though, it is a great place. I don’t know if it is a popular attraction given the less than prime location and cost compared with the free Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku, but it’s nice to see a different perspective on the streets I’ve been walking every day for the last few weeks. And to watch the bullet trains whizz by, with jazz playing softly in the background.