In 1992, I went to Japan for the first time. Being an English major had begun to worry me and I wanted a hard skill. Learning a language sounded like a good idea and I had really enjoyed studying Japanese culture and history, so I picked Japanese. I also heard it was very difficult for English speakers to learn since the alphabet is illegible to us. I proceeded to get a 1.5 grade for three quarters in a row. I knew that if I wanted to learn I would have to go there, so I applied and barely (I guess they didn’t like my GPA(what’s not to like?!)) got accepted on a one-year overseas program.
That was the beginning of the long journey towards learning Japanese. It didn’t come easy to me, even though I have a good ear (I was a first tenor in a men’s octet in high school) and can do fabulous imitations of foreigners in English (you should hear my Arnold Schwarzenegger!). I don’t think it really gelled for me until the year 2000, when I got my first job as an IT guy and Japanese Interpreter. I had to interpret for 15 Japanese engineers every day. Very stressful. If I had to go back, by the way, I would highly recommend listening to the language tapes. I never did, but in 2008, when I moved to Italy for 2 years, I listened to the Italian mp3s and picked it up a lot faster. Anyway, my two cents …
In 2006, I got a job working for the U.S. Army in Japan and moved there with my 3 kids and wife. The most surprising thing about this experience was that my family all says they miss Japanese food the most! It’s not what you think, though. What they miss is the ramen, gyoza, fried rice, shabu shabu, sukiyaki, and yakiniku. Yes, they also enjoyed kaiten sushi, or the ‘sushi train’ as my kids dubbed it, where the sushi travels on a belt around the restaurant.
Now ramen is not what you think. In Japan, it is super fresh vegetables and meat in savory broth of soy, pork, beef, miso, etc. My favorite was tonkotsu ramen, which is a cloudy, thicker pork broth. Some of the best was permeated with red hot chili oil floating on the surface and many places have fresh garlic toes sitting on the table for you to crush into your soup. I was sweating and tearing up at some places because it was so spicy and delicious. The cruelest thing I ever did was take visitors to have amazing ramen, gyoza and fried rice, because, in my opinion, it just isn’t available anywhere in the U.S.
In conclusion, you really need a savvy guide in order to find the best bars and eateries or else you’ll end up in ‘traditional’ Japanese restaurants, in which the food is not very remarkable. More about Japan in future posts … 🙂