By Melody Burson
We walked the narrow, meandering paths of Komae to make our way to our friend Misa’s parents’ house from the train station. It was past midnight and the snow covered the old town section of this Tokyo suburb with a thick blanket of white. It was eerily quiet, except for the muted sounds of people laughing and talking from the small izakaya cafes as they enjoyed their warm sake and hot-off-the-charcoal yakitori skewers.
I was longing to have a bite to eat too. We had been traveling for almost 24 hours: flying from Seattle to Narita Airport, then taking a bus into Tokyo (and getting caught in huge traffic jams due to the snow) and then hopping an express train and a then transfer to local one to get us to the Komae station. It was about a 15 minute walk to the house. Misa and her husband Dave – a Tacoma native son – assured my husband Dale and I that her mother would have food at the ready when we arrived. When her parents greeted us at the door, I could see and smell the wonderful food she had prepared for us.
We were spending a couple of weeks in Japan, mostly in Tokyo staying with Misa and her family, but also taking the bullet train to Kyoto to sightsee and spend a couple of nights in a traditional inn called a ryokan. We arrived several days after Christmas and the timing was right to participate in New Year’s festivities. The beginning of a New Year in Japan is one grand celebration that lasts for days. With the snow, the holiday felt like it was an amalgamation of Christmas, New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July, with a bit of spring cleaning thrown in, as the New Year must begin with a clean slate.
And the New Year also means food. Lots of food. And fortunately, lots of great food. I concur with what the late Anthony Bourdain wrote in his book “Kitchen Confidential,” “I think food, culture, people, and landscape are all absolutely inseparable.” That adage was so true on this trip and made for some memorable experiences.
When in Rome
Misa’s extended family – parents, sisters, and aunt and uncle, a couple of cousins – had an elaborate omakase dinner at restaurant in the hills outside of Tokyo. This is a dinner where the chef prepares many courses of their choosing. Dave, Dale and I were sitting at one end of the long banquet table, across from Misa’s brother-in-law Hikaru. One of the dishes served was a perch-size fish, fried tempura style, on a small plate. We weren’t sure how to eat this. Scrape the meat off with your chopstick? Pick up the whole fish with chopsticks and nibble? After a whispered discussion, we decided to take Hikaru’s lead when he tucked in. You know… when in Rome. With the three of us watching every move he made, Hikaru picked up the fish with his chopsticks. We did the same. He brought it to his mouth. We did too. He then bit off the whole head; bones, eyeballs and all, and crunched away. We set our fish down and scraped off the meat.
But Don’t do This
I found out the hard way. Do not, under any circumstances, share food by passing it via one pair of chopsticks to another. Other people at your table will gasp. Other diners in the restaurant will point at you and frown. Wait staff will confer to see if you need to be asked to leave.
I’ve Fallen and Can’t Get Up
We had several holiday dinners where the amount and variety of food was staggering. The New Year’s Day feast prepared by Misa’s sisters and mother was a jaw-dropping smorgasbord of Japanese goodies, and the meal we had at the ryokan in Kiyoto was Gourmet Magazine worthy. But unlike U.S. Japanese restaurants, the low tables in Japan do not have wells beneath them to dangle your feet. Men usually sit cross-legged on the floor, while ladies put both legs to one side. It’s not an easy feat to get up after sitting this way for a long time and being stuffed from these big meals. There were some awkward, but laughable, gymnastics involved.
One of the street foods available is takoyaki, which translates as grilled octopus, but here it means octopus balls. No, not those type of balls. Cooks use a special grill to ladle batter into half round molds where a chunk of octopus is placed. The vendor then keeps adding batter and rotating it with chopsticks until a round little ball of takoyaki is done. They are sold 6-8 per order. They’re pretty chewy and rubbery. Memorable, but not a favorite of mine.
No Tip for You!
Or for you either. It’s considered rude and insulting to leave a tip at a restaurant.
There is a bottled drink sold in vending machines called Pocari Sweat.
Here’s to a Long Life
Having Soba noodles on New Year’s Eve is a must-do. You eat the buckwheat noodle soup just before you head out for joya no kane at the Buddhist temples at midnight, the ringing of bells to drive away any negative emotions from the past year. The long noodles signify a long life. Slurping up the noodles is encouraged and shows you’re enjoying the dish. The louder and longer the slurp, the better. My grandmother who knew Emily Post’s book on etiquette verbatim would be horrified.
That Looks Familiar
Misa’s sister Chizu thought we might be homesick for some of our usual foods and decided to surprise us with a special dinner. She found an English cookbook (she could read English but didn’t know how to pronounce the words) and made us pot roast one night. It was one of the best versions of pot roast I’ve ever had.
Chizu worked for Microsoft in Tokyo and we met up with her and her office mates after work one night. Karaoke, food, sake – lots of sake – were on the agenda. I don’t remember much of the evening, but I know Dave and Dale sang “16 Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford. I may have belted out “Roxanne” by The Police.
I’m afraid our New Year’s plans for 2021 were dashed by the pandemic. We hope to travel again and it would be great to return to Japan to celebrate the dawning of a New Year. Maybe we can toast the occasion by hoisting a can of Pocari Sweat.
 Misa explained that this taboo has something to do with how a deceased person’s bones are passed during a funeral ritual. Her family is still talking about this incident from years ago.