Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Kyoko and the Sushi Master Tokyo, Japan

When you have to make your way anywhere in downtown Tokyo, by yourself, and do not speak or read Japanese, it feels in that moment that nothing greater will ever test your independent travel mettle the same way. That was exactly my overwhelming feeling trying to find the restaurant Funibashiya, prefecture Shinjuku, downtown Tokyo.

On my way to the well-known Tsunahachi restaurant, housed in a building pre-WWII, I had my subway map, the name of the restaurant and address in Western and Japanese characters, and had to only travel two subway stops. How hard could it be? Very hard from the get go I discovered as I tried to buy my subway ticket at the machine for the Manarouchi line. Even in English, I could not find Manarouchi. As I struggled to explain this to the subway station attendant, I heard the utmost angelic voice say in flawless English, “May I help you?” I turned around to see eye for eye the absolute largest brown eyes I have ever seen in my lifetime literally inches away from me, staring straight at me. “Hmm, yes...” was all I could muster. I stumbled for a moment, looking at this creature with the saucer sized eyes framed by pigtails and realized this beautiful young Japanese girl would help me get my ticket for the Manarouchi line. Her two years of living in Toronto as a teenager was paying off for me now. 
Kyoko & me in the Tokyo subway station 

As I showed this Japanese beauty named Kyoko where I was going, she asked the station attendant to purchase my ticket for me, and since she was going the same way on the same subway line, she would make sure I got off at the right stop. I told her I was venturing out on my own for dinner, away from my crew, and going to Tsunahachi restaurant since I had read it served fantastic tempura. She offered her favorite place for tempura, a place she and her mother went to often, and had eaten at just a few days before that was near Tsunahachi. Kyoko believed Funibashiya was a better, more local, restaurant and felt sure I would enjoy it. She gave me directions, and as easy as it sounded at the time, the nano-second I exited the subway stop, I knew finding Funibashiya was going to be nothing short of a challenge. It took me asking the police, many strangers, a re-tracing of my steps, and a heavy dose of feeling overwhelmed and helpless among the shoulder-to-shoulder rush-hour crowds and neon lights flashing everywhere to find this restaurant. At one point, I just stood on the street corner, feeling utterly at a loss, thinking at least I know how to get back to the subway.

When I finally found Funibashiya, the hostess motioned for me to sit in the back room. I took one look and motioned to her I didn’t want to be relegated to the back room of tourists and the like. I wanted to sit up front, near the Sushi Master, and be a part of the Japanese crowd eating dinner. With a pause she relented, and I sat to the left of an older couple who I intently followed through dinner, doing everything they did. The Sushi Master scowled at me and made sure I knew he didn’t like having me seated anywhere near him. 
The older man watched me struggle to figure out the correct protocol for chopsticks, table seasonings, sides for my tempura, pots of broth, and hand towels. Even though this was far from my first time eating in a Japanese sushi restaurant (okay, first time in Tokyo) and I am near deft at eating with chopsticks, I have never sat at the elbow of the Sushi Master. My older gentleman friend explained to me in passable English my accompanying side dishes and sauces, saying “...and you mix here, with this (pointing to one of the sauces he had poured into my dish). I pointed to his plate and said, “But you didn’t mix yours!” which made him and his wife roar with laughter. Even the Sushi Master cracked a smile. 
When my eight piece tempura dinner of shrimp, pumpkin, onion, Chinese eggplant, mixed vegetable/shrimp, and fish, was finished, the Sushi Master motioned to me; the elderly couple next to me said, “Sushi Master say your tempura over.” I finished my Kirin beer, and as I stood up to leave, I thanked the older gentleman and his wife for their graciousness, and I thanked the Sushi Master with a slight bow and arigatou gozaimasu. This time he smiled.

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