DM's Japan 2006 Trip Diary

Day 6 - Utsunomiya

Friday, 27 January, 2006

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22:30

It was another hectic day at the Canon labs, measuring lenses and then wrapping up the week with an afternoon full of meetings.

The day began with a slightly earlier rising and shower, as we planned to meet in the hotel lobby and partake of the buffet breakfast instead of grabbing take-away sushi at the combini. It had western breakfast things including cereal, bacon, eggs, toast, croissants, juice, etc, but also Japanese things like rice, miso soup, tiny fried fish, tofu, and so on. Matthew had been threatening me with natto and umeboshi all week, and finally found some of both at the buffet.

Never one to avoid sampling new foods, I started with the natto, or fermented soybeans. They came in a tiny plastic cup with a sealed lid. Pulling the seal off, I smelt the contents, and didn't notice anything off-putting - which was odd because I was expecting a strong smell of some sort. When I put my fork in, however, I noticed the sticky, slimy, stringy goop covering the beans, which looked incredibly unappealing. The fact that the strands stuck to the fork, and the beans, and would simply not break no matter what I did didn't help. I ended up with sticky strands of this goop all over the place. When I finally got some beans into my mouth, I had strands going from cup to fork to mouth, and they simply stretched longer and longer as I tried desperately to break them. The taste was actually very mild and only faintly unpleasant - a sort of stale, musty taste. It was the texture that was more off-putting.

Having extracted myself from the sticky strands with great difficulty, I ate a small croissant to cleanse the palate before tempting fate with the umeboshi. The pickled plum sat innocently on the plate, daring me to eat it. Matthew popped one into his mouth, so I followed his lead. The outside wasn't too bad, but once the skin broke and the delights of the interior were revealed to my uninitiated mouth, it was clear that the humble plum was far, far, far worse than the natto. It was salty enough to be unpleasant mixed with the overpowered sweetness of the plum, and at the same time incredibly, horrendously, nastily sour. I washed it down quickly with orange juice and raced for another bowl of corn flakes.

Early in the day Matthew found a suitable moment to give Kato-san and Saito-san the gifts we'd carried from Australia - a pack of individually wrapped Tim Tams, a bag of Caramello Koalas and Freddo Frogs, and a box of "Emu Bottom" brand macadamia shortbread. They opened the shortbread and shared it around, and it was actually very good.

For my last lunch at the Canon canteen I had the katsu dish, which Saito-san described as "fried hamburger". It was minced meat, pork I think, made into a schnitzel-like patty coated with breadcrumbs, and fried, served with some salad. I also grabbed a bowl of miso soup and what looked like a coleslaw from the cold food servery. As we ate, Saito-san questioned the fact that I hadn't also taken a bowl of rice, which he thought was very odd. I looked around and sure enough, every single person I could see in the canteen - a hundred or more - all had a bowl of rice as part of their meal.

When we were done with meetings after lunch, a heavy week of work behind us, we packed our lenses and cameras and other assorted equipment into our luggage bags and waited for some of the staff to take us out to dinner yet again. Being Friday night, it was more informal this time, with several of the more junior staff joining us, making a party of seven.


Okonomiyaki, round one
We went to an okonomiyaki restaurant, which had large iron hotplates in the middle of the dining tables, on which we cooked our own food. We learnt that "teppan" means "iron", indicating the hotplate in teppanyaki, but the style of food we were to have was actually okonomiyaki, which is subtly different in some way we couldn't quite understand. The first round of food was chunks of potato, eggplant, shiitake, and huge chunks of cuttlefish tentacles, brought out on platters with pats of butter to be used to help fry them up. There was also oil in a jar by the hotplates, which our hosts spread around the hotplates using a brush. A variety of sauces and spices sat in a holder in the middle of the two hotplates at our table. At one point, Matthew and one of our hosts got into a chili powder contest, each trying to outdo the other by adding more chili to his next piece of food. There was much mirth and laughter, at this and at the various conversation subjects that we tackled with a broken mixture of Japanese and English.


Matthew flips his
okonomiyaki
The next round of food was bowls of shredded vegetables and cheese, topped with a couple of eggs. Our hosts demonstrated how to handle them by mixing the contents thoroughly and dumping them on to the middle of the hotplates to form a giant omelette. Once cooked on one side, the okonomiyaki omelette needed to be flipped. Our hosts encouraged us to have a try, handing us the two large metal flipping things to try it. I went first, flipping it very quickly with the encouragement of the practised Japanese. Subarashii! It worked beautifully. Matthew then tried and emulated my success, to wild cheering. This was served up with a thick brown sauce that apparently was the essence of okonomiyaki cooking, which we brushed on to the finished dish ourselves, and then topped with shaved bonito flakes and seaweed flakes from a shaker. Our hosts also added mayonnaise, which they said made the result delicious, but Matthew and I tried only a little of that. Somehow mayonnaise just doesn't seem authentically Japanese!

By this time we were full, but another course arrived, with more shredded vegetables, but this time mixed with a watery liquid that made the result more like a stir fry than an omelette. There were four different types of this, one with octopus bits, one with a curry flavour, one with soba noodles, and another one I didn't get to see properly because it was on the far half of the table from me.

Completely, stuffed, we made plans to meet Saito-san and Endo-san tomorrow at 9am in our hotel lobby for the trip to Nikko, before waddling back to our hotel for the night.


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