An experience that is still taking some adjusting to in Japan is eating out. We are staying at a guesthouse that has a supplied kitchen (much like the places we stayed at in New Zealand) so we cook in sometimes, but since we’re often out-and-about we typically eat out someplace. Whether it’s a nice sit-down type establishment or a fast food joint (Western implants not included) the experience is often the same.
1. Look at the sign out front to see what the restaurant serves. Most places are ‘specialty’ restaurants, i.e. they only serve one main type of food. You can’t get Takoyaki (fried octopus) at a Yakisoba (noodles) joint, no beef at a chicken-skewer place, etc. Sometimes there are menus outside, and sometimes they even have pictures, but normally I rely on Indi’s knowledge of Japanese to piece together what kind of restaurant it is.
2. Once we find a place we want to eat at, we go inside via a typically sliding door. The servers (all of them) and the cooks (all of them) immediately yell, “Irrashaimase!” which is a form of welcome. Some of it just sounds like, “Iaaaa!” but the general feeling is there. One of the staff shows us to a seat. We are brought a steaming towel each (for hand washing) and the waitress tells us what specials they have (typically two or three), points to the menu and says to call them over when we’re ready to order. Of course, this is entirely in Japanese. Our English is no good here.
3. After not understanding a lick of what the employee just said, we order some water to drink. We immediately get a menu (most tables only have one) and try to further interpret the menu. At this point I must mention that although Indi’s Japanese is servicable for conversation, it doesn’t mesh well with the kanji-rich text of restaurant menus. Basically, we try to find something, ANYTHING, that we actually know. Since the majority of Japanese folks speak NO English at all, we can’t ask either.
4. We order what we have been able to decipher and wait. Seriously, I don’t think we’ve been anywhere where we’ve understood more than 10% of any given menu. It’s not easy! After a short time (cooks are FAST here) our food arrives. It is typically not EXACTLY what we’re expecting, but every time it has been phenomenal and worth the effort. Indi and I both say, “Itaradakimasu!” (let’s eat) break apart our wooden chopsticks and dig in.
5. Japan is cash based. Hardly anyone ever uses cards. We get our check and pay in bills and coin, once again assuming what is being said to us, nodding, smiling, and leaving said establishment.
I’m still having a hard time being full here. Most portions are small, even by my new stomach-shrunk-standards. It’s hard to resist the temptation to stop at McDonald’s or KFC, someplace where I know what I’m ordering and I’m usually full afterwards. But we are making a concerted effort NOT to eat anyplace we can get back home. I, for one, have greatly expanded my culinary horizons (as you well know) and think Japan has had the best food so far. Every day is an adventure!