Saturday, June 16, 2007

Indonesian Food Tried, Declared Delicious by All...

Last night I had dinner with a friend at a small Indonesian restaurant called Sarasaya. It's opposite and just down the block from the old Joshin building. We followed a middle-aged Japanese man up some stairs and because it was only around 5:30pm (which is practically still lunchtime here), we were the only patrons.

Our host even gave us a fresh copy of the Asahi Daily News, in English. At least I think that's the newspaper's name. The online link gives the name as the Asahi Shinbun (shinbun means "newspaper" in Japanese), but be that as it may, this newspaper reprints old Calvin and Hobbes strips. We used to get it in the teachers' room at my old Nova school and we always pored over it obsessively.

I have a feeling some of us took it to the bathroom and probably rested it either on the filthy floor or against the e-coli laden stall walls while holding it with their pants down during lunch period.

But the copy at Sarasaya was pristine and untouched by grubby hands until we despoiled it.

The host also gave us a helpful reading of the daily specials in broken English. It was obviously a struggle for him, so I appreciated his making the effort.

One constant factor when you're an English-speaking foreigner living in Japan is the profound embarrassment many Japanese feel when forced to use their meagre English language skills. Sure, some people revel in the opportunity, like the older woman who chirped "Thank you" to me and then cackled with delight after I kindly gestured that she could exit the elevator ahead of me.

Or the Bentenjima schoolkids in their yellow plastic helmets who I meet crossing the bridge there almost every Wednesday and who will greet me with a cheerful "Hello" one after the other, forcing me to repeatedly respond in a sort of verbal high-five social ceremony, or that stupid thing we were always forced to do after youth league baseball games- meet the enemy on the mound and tell each other "Good game" over and over and completely insincerely.

The kids also get a huge kick out of it.

But for your average workaday computer store cashier or restaurant employee, the thought of having to interact with a confident, cocky gaijin in English is the stuff of high school class nightmare. You can see obvious fear on their faces, the mental block so overwhelming that even your own attempt to use put them at ease by using infant-level Japanese results in a Japanese person saying, "Thank you" and an American replying "Do itashimashite" and both having a mental breakdown.

Language is one of our great barriers to communication. Maybe we should abolish it.

My friend had a tuna steak that looked like a sauce-covered work of art, and I had this amazing-looking grilled chicken in cream sauce with mushrooms and onions, along with a generous wedge of naan and a plate of rice. We both had salads with some sort of mild ginger dressing.

Lemme tell ya... that chicken dish was delicious. It was so tasty, I could've eaten another complete helping even past the point where my appetite was sated. And I was definitely full after I finished off all my courses. All that for under 20 bucks; a bargain by Japanese dining out standards.

Still, being loaded up on creamy chicken and mushrooms didn't stop me from Challenging the Triple at Baskin-Robbins. "Challenge the..." is a fairly new concept in Japanese English, quickly assuming the commercial status of adding "the" to the middle of phrases for no reason, a la the popular new apartment highrise here in Hamamatsu called "Tower The First," or the well-received annual sales event known as "Jusco The Bargain."

That's why I'm implementing a new concept in my classes- Challenge the English.

Baskin-Robbins' Challenge the Triple campaign adds a third scoop to your Regular Double at no extra charge. That's a pile of ice cream! I highly recommend anyone currently in Japan who is also an ice cream lover to rise to meet this challenge, maybe even to the point of administering beatings to various members of the rock group Survivor afterwards.

With our ice cream, we had nowhere in particular to go. Downtown Hamamatsu was becoming a hotbed of nocturnal fun, with groups of sharply-dressed young people looking for fun in the restaurants, bars and izakaya that abound in Kajimachi, and up and down Yuraku-gai and Mall streets. We sat in front of Zaza City, joined by a friendly homeless guy with a missing tooth.

I had to point out our similarity at this point to Goober and Gomer Pyle, two country boys come to town on a Saturday night without dates. Eating ice cream, no plans, no girls.

Around 9:30 or so we met up with some people then went to Tengu, the underground izakaya. The hours of 9 to about 11 make up prime restuarant eating time in Japan, so if you're in Hamamatsu and out on a Saturday night, you need to have made reservations. Because there is virtually no chance in hell you're going to get seated in any restuarant worth the time.

But if all else fails, you can probably get a table at Tengu, where the food is pretty decent and reasonably priced. Being underground and near the station means you're away from the bustle of Kajimachi. You can easily eat and walk back there without too much of a time lapse, and Tengu itself can be pretty fun.

By the time we were finished eating, the need for karaoke had surfaced in the group. We tried both U-Style and Shidax, but learned another lesson that should've been prior knowledge- after dining time comes singing time in Japan. It was now around 11pm, so of course all the karaoke places were jammed up, with long wait times for rooms.

And I do mean long wait times- with karaoke sessions sometimes running 4 hours or more, unless you have a reservation you just might end up out of luck and out on the street.

Like the poor guy on the sidewalk opposite U-Style. Surrounded by his friends (who had helpfully put his head inside a large, clear plastic garbage bag in case of leakage), he collapsed against the building behind him, his head between his knees, his arms stretched out loosely in front. King of Saturday Night!

Come to think of it... he wasn't the only party casualty we encountered that night. On our way to Tengu, we came upon a group of young guys trying to force one of their more inebriated members into the backseat of a taxi. One guy was berating him loudly in Japanese, perhaps for being a shameful lightweight and while entering a taxi should take no more than 5 seconds at most, by the time we were able to cross the street several minutes later, the drunky was still not in the cab.

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