Thy food is such as hath been belched on by infected lungs.
-- William Shakespeare
I don't know what I found more disturbing: the words, "It can be difficult to keep the live octopus in your mouth," or the accompanying illustration of a man seated at a table, his eyes locked open in terror, with eight tentacled arms stretching from his mouth and attaching themselves by suction to every corner of his face. I'd seen this before in the movie Alien . Snapping my head in David's direction, I begged, "PLEASE tell me we're not going to have to see anything like this in Japan." David ignored me and turned the page. Color drawings of raw eggs, chicken innards on a skewer, and slices of something pink did nothing to quell my fears. Two weeks of this weird shit , I thought. I tried to put a positive spin on the impending ordeal and told myself, Hey, maybe I'll lose a few pounds.
My food horizons have expanded exponentially since I met David. B.D. (Before David), I considered extra ketchup on my Kraft Mac & Cheese adventurous. Expensive dishes in which food was carefully arranged in aesthetically pleasing designs were referred to as "fancy crap," and anything French was dubbed, "snails and shit." Though I haven't wavered in my aversion to the rich sauces and slimy fare of "high-end" French restaurants, I am now more likely to taste exotic cuisine (like cheeses that come with a rind), and I have learned to appreciate food that looks as good as it tastes.
Despite my growth, however, the idea of eating in Japan made my jaw clench in apprehension. See, I don't like fish. Unless it is a skinned and boneless chunk of halibut that has completely taken on the flavor of whatever it's been drenched in, I don't even want to see it on the table. Should it end up there anyway, I will avert my gaze and breathe through my mouth until it disappears. It's not just fish, either, but anything fish-related -- the sight, smell, or texture of ocean plants, fresh or dried, triggers my gag reflex. In short, I was about to enter a foreign land that specialized in my culinary nightmare.
The month before we left, David and I undertook a cultural crash course. We ate at Japanese restaurants all over San Diego County. I ventured beyond teriyaki chicken and experimented with cucumber rolls, ramen, udon noodles, and even the esoteric katsu - don -- a breaded chicken cutlet served in a bowl over seasoned rice and grilled onions and topped with a fried egg. I insisted on eating a burrito the day before we left, and I savored every bite as if it were my last.
"I'm not worried anymore," I said to David during the hour-long bus ride to our hotel in Tokyo. So far, everything had been safely Western -- back at the airport, I had even purchased a latte from a vendor that sold hot dogs. I was lulled into complacency by the smiling face painted on the brightly colored, human-sized statue of a hot dog that stood next to me while I waited for my coffee.
But it turned out that navigating food wasn't as simple as avoiding fish -- every item, even innocuous-seeming ingredients like chicken and tomatoes, was suspect. Apparently, anything I happen to find disgusting is a delicacy in the land of the rising sun. Things like gristle, skin, and fat, or fruit and veggies soaked in fish oil. I learned this the hard way, after I'd confidently passed through an entrance over which was painted a giant chicken -- a familiar symbol that imbued me with a false sense of security.
Upon glimpsing our whiteness, the waiter handed us an English menu, a gesture that left me feeling both offended and relieved. I ordered some kind of chicken meal deal (or "set," as they call it), which came with an appetizer, soup, chicken, and rice. When the food arrived, my second impulse (the first had been to choke back bile) was to look for cameras. This has to be some kind of joke they play on foreigners , I thought. In a shiny, hand-painted, ceramic dish sat a raw chicken leg. That's right, that sick bastard served me the salmonella special. Beside it was my "soup" bowl, which smelled like funk and contained a tepid, nearly opaque liquid with a raw egg floating around in it. The entrée was no better -- glistening gristle-covered bone on a bed of white rice. While I glared at the abomination of a feast before me, David chowed happily on his fish-flake surprise.
Like any big city, Tokyo offered plenty of dining options. I sought refuge in tofu, curry, and noodles. But as Murphy would have it, the day I finally found my culinary groove was the day we were to leave for Hakone, a small resort town a few hours away. It was in this quaint traditional village that I suffered the greatest food effrontery of all.
Because I had been prepped for what lay in store -- David had explained that we were staying at traditional Japanese inns for two days and would have no choice when it came to what food would be brought to our room for dinner and breakfast -- I stocked up on red bean buns at the train station.
Dinner was to be served in our quarters at 7. Our server, a friendly woman named Kazuko-san dressed in a beautiful kimono, brought each of the 11 courses to our private dining room, each time announcing herself before sliding open the shoji screen and entering the room on her knees. Our first course included an entire fish -- head, bones, skin and all. It was three inches long. "I can't do this," I said. David smiled and popped his fish into his mouth and chewed.
The next item to arrive was a seaweed salad. Then sashimi. Then something brown and slimy looking. After Kazuko-san gracefully placed a course before us and then disappeared to let us eat, I would suspiciously inspect her latest offering. I would sniff it cautiously, look up at David, and say, "Taste this. Is it fishy?" David repeatedly answered me with a nod. In desperate, whispered pleas, I begged him to eat my food so that my dish would be empty when Kazuko-san returned to replace it with something even more horrific.