A yen for Tokyo

My friend Tariq Ansari and his son Imaan, invite me to Japan—Tokyo and Kanazawa to be specific. “Join us,we’ll walk, we’ll eat, we’ll explore… we’ll experience, you can take photos… Tokyo, the big city, and Kanazawa, off the beaten track, the castle town of 400 years.” Tariq is pretty much a native of Japan, having studied in Tokyo, his Japanese is fluent—For everyone who’s been to this great nation, “There’s no country quite like it”—I concur—it is a quiet city of 14 million people, perpetually on silent mode.

Old world in its orientalism. Ornate but not opulent.There is an order that permeates day -to-day life.

In Tokyo, your every sense is activated, there is fragrance, scents of various kinds in the air, there is solitude amidst the swarms, the streets spotless without being antiseptic, the best example of a metropolis in meditative motion. The people aren’t over chatty, but the attitude is helpful, without necessarily being “hail fellow well met”.

This is a world city… and yet there is a traditionalism, I’d be tempted to say, tourism hasn’t been fully embraced.

The universe of food takes centrestage in Tokyo, cuisine isn’t just about eating, and “Michellin Star dishes”—it’s about a process, the ingredients, the garnishing critical to the end product. “Open your mind to the flavours and the feel of the food, the attention to detail, there is no compromise,” Tariq tells me. In many styles of Japanese cooking, while the chef prepares, you sit in front of him, watching the drama unfold. Fingers, delicately placing pieces of eel on small beds of rice, Yoshiihiro knives slicing through chunks of Wagyu beef.

Tariq and I go to Mijo, an Omakase style restaurant—you place your trust in the chef’s culinary skills to create a private meal—Omakase translates as “I leave it upto you.” Ohara is our Omakase chef… he’s a funny guy, a far cry from the mostly “Majime-me-kao” (serious face) of the average Tokyoite—He carries his skills lightly, he cooks, cleans, pours, slices—“How’s your English so good?” we ask.

“I studied school in Colorado,” he says. 

He’s no more than 27, but he is an artist, an aesthete—he knows his spices, he knows his sake, he knows his sea food, he knows his sashimi—and then he places before us the most exquisite piece of ceramic crockery with what looks like four separate delicacies… my eyes first light up, and then I gulp as he explains—

“Baby squid… salmon eggs… pickled sardines… and whelk (from the snail family).”

He watches while I eat, a twinkle in his eyes, I summon my inner samurai.

“If you don like, is ok, there’s next one,” he assures me. Then he places in front me, octopus… “Come eat… tell me if you like”—“Octopus, ‘Tako’ in Japanese is both a street food and a speciality dish, depends where you eat it, the preparation,” Tariq tells me.

In Japan, food is about seasoning and seasons, which region it’s from and what time of year.

Ohara focuses on us, intrigued by Tariq’s ease with Japanese culture and traditions, each course is a private tuition, a gastronomic journey—he’s asks where we’re from, surprised when we say India—how do Indians approach their meals, he enquires – he is horrified to learn that Indians eat after drinking, after all this is a man who pairs each course with particular sake, “you take a bit of food followed immediately by a sip of a particular sake,” he says.

He proudly produces an MDL Chaat masala, “someone gave me from India” and proceeds to apply it to some fried radish. The combination works.

“I like the film 3 Idiot,” he says suddenly, “You know Aamir Khan?” he asks, “Don’t know him, but we’ve met him,” we both say. He pours each of us a small peach liqueur.

As we get up to leave, post a seven-course meal, he comes out to say goodbye, he gives us the traditional bow.

Sayonara Ohara. Arrigato. Till we meet again. 

The next day we board the bullet train…

And a new adventure begins, to the even quieter town of Kanazawa. 

Rahul daCunha is an adman, theatre director/playwright, photographer and traveller. Reach him at rahul. dacunha@ mid-day.com

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