Japan Ride 6
The following is the sixth chapter of the trip five New England riders took to Japan to ride the Northern Territories.
Country Dining - The First Supper
Hokkaido is said to be the breadbasket of Japan. More accurately it is Japan’s food cart. Rice, fruits and vegetables are all grown on Hokkaido and shipped to the main island. The climate is cool, moist and humid in summer and bloody cold and snowy in winter. The soil, what isn’t a hill or mountain, is dark and rich.
I have never eaten simpler or tastier food that that which was served me in Japan. The freshness of the fruits and vegetables and the simplicity of the soups and sauces that made every food experience one to be anticipated. Add another consistent dimension; the pride and care with which every meal is served demands the diner’s attention. Whether the meal was Miso soup, oysters and French fries at a dockside stand or a multi-course meal served in our room, each meal was important and memorable.
The following are highlights of what I learned about Japanese food that stands out in my memory. Let me begin with The First Supper. While not technically the first supper of our voyage, it really was our first supper on Hokkaido, and the dining experience not influenced by “big city” tourist values.
We arrived at our ryokan (Japanese hotel or Inn) in Ikeda in the very late afternoon after the day described in Chapter # 5, we were tired, both physically and mentally. We needed a beer. Our Japanese compatriots wanted a beer and a bath. This was our first night of sleeping Japanese style and my roommate was Kei, our host leader. The sleeping room consisted a futon neatly placed on a slightly raised floor. It was covered with freshly ironed, highly starched sheets, and Lilliputian sized pillows. We freshened up at communal sinks outside the room and walked upstairs to the small but airy public restaurant on the top floor of the hotel. Five rectangular tables were arranged on either side on a wide aisle and abutted a wall. Each table seated four adults. Two tables towards the rear were reserved for our group. The remainder of the tables were taken up by Japanese. We were seated by a hostess. Our host, who owned the hotel and was master chef, sat on a wooden bar stool slightly back from the aisle that separated the two rows of tables. This allowed access in and out by the wait staff and the patrons and yet gave our host a commanding view of the diners, half of whom had their backs to him. From this perch he spoke incessantly. He extolled the virtues of the food we were eating and the fresh fruit and vegetables which, we later learned, he was offering for sale. Very much like the infomercials on our TV’s he was virtually ignored by the diners. This troubled him not a whit, as he continued his demonstrations and non-stop filibuster. At different points in his presentation he would cut open a melon or other fruit and would walk to each table insisting that each diner try a very small piece of it and tell him and fellow diners just how wonderful it tasted. Amazingly, it was wonderful, and no one had a problem saying so. As other diners departed, they would buy fruits and vegetables to take with them. Fascinating!
I have never eaten such sweet and tasty melon. Which brings me to an astonishing fact about melons in Japan; cantaloupe can easily sell for $70 to $100 per melon. How can this be? I ask. Because, when the melon plant blossoms, all but one of the flowers is plucked from it. The melon then focuses all of its reproductive energies on a producing a single fruit. The farmer has an extraordinary product to sell and can demand a seemingly extraordinary price. Many apples trees are treated in the same way. Naturally not every cantaloupe or apple sold is of this quality, but some are and they have an exceptional taste. Japan also grows sixteen different types of potatoes. All the ones we tasted, even the ones with purple flesh, were extraordinarily tasty.
This night we had seafood, king crab legs, crab and fried shrimp, fresh melon and a number of delicious pieces of specially prepared fish with special sauces whose names were unpronounceable, let alone translatable. We had abandoned forks several days before and were learning to use chopsticks and eat more slowly and in smaller bites. This also added to the taste experience. And we drank beer. Large glasses were constantly being refilled and replaced. All the while our host droned on at the head of the class.
Let me drone on for a moment about the virtues of a staple of Japanese food about which I had previously been quite indifferent. Anyone who has eaten banquet meals in North America knows that white rice is simply a plate filler to separate what is intended to pass for the main lump from the luke-warm soggy vegetables that are totally devoid of taste. Rice in America can be warm or cold, hard or soft, loose or gathered, like an ice cream cone. It matters little how it is served because it doesn’t taste of anything worthy of being remembered. Much is consumed with gravy.
Japanese rice is different. It is much closer in importance to Italian risotto. It is cooked by the bucketful, literally, and served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is sticky and finished with vinegar, yet it is sweet, the largest portion of any meal, and absolutely delicious. I quickly became addicted to it.
Two of my favorite tastes were largely absent from my Japanese diet. Butter and sugar. Butter is generally absent, both from cooking and on the table. And bread is more a treat than a staple. If you are thinking of a romantic tete-a-tete with a dainty Japanese wench while sharing a tasty baguette and a hunk of brie, think again, Big Nose. The Western view of sex, wine and buttery cheese, have not caught on yet in Japan.
In our experience, only the “American style” hotels offer butter with toast in the morning.
Dessert can be custard or custard cakes but the custard is hardly sweet. It is prepared for texture, not sweetness.