(Finishing up a few remaining posts before we start our next trip.)
On my first visit to Japan, with a friend, we had the best meal of the trip and the worst meal of the trip within 24 hours of each other. We’d gone to Koya-san, the temple complex, and stayed in a temple for two nights and booked two dinners there. The temples are kitted out like hotels, and they are renowned for their Buddhist vegetarian (i.e. vegan) cuisine.
We arrived to find the monks had helpfully canceled our second meal, explaining that it was going to be the exact same as the first (us: “But it’s a fantastic meal! We’d love to have it again!”) and directed us to the only restaurant in town, which we somehow failed to find. So we instead dropped by a convenience store and purchased what turned out to be the only convenience store food in Japan that was terrible.
I don’t remember the details of that meal, except that it was on par with American convenience store food, which is basically terrible. I don’t want to remember the details of that meal.
But dinner the night before was awesome–a vast array of all sorts of beautiful dishes with a variety of colors, flavors, and textures, most of which we couldn’t identify because we were unfamiliar with the fruits and vegetables or because the preparation had changed the appearance, but all of which were delicious.
One of the monks pointed out each dish and explained what it was in Japanese but as I am terribly monolingual I didn’t catch any of it. My friend Rachel can muddle her way through Japanese reasonably well, but wasn’t able to catch most of what the monk said.
She pointed at one of the dishes and, because she couldn’t remember the word for “seaweed,” haltingly asked “Is it a vegetable of the sea?”
The monk laughed. “No,” he replied. “It is a vegetable of the land.”
A couple of years later I was in a LUSH store and found a soap labeled “Vegetable of the Sea” which I immediately bought and mailed to Rachel.
For my latest trip to Japan, with my husband, I’m hard-pressed to decide what the best meal of the trip was, but we both remember the worst one, which was the only bad one, vividly.
It was near the end of the trip and we were back in Tokyo. We’d been walking all day and my arthritic feet were hurting badly and I didn’t want to climb the stairs at the elevator-free train station next to the hotel, so we were stuck in the business-y neighborhood the hotel was in. There were two options, Burger King and Sukiya. We considered BK but it was up a flight of stairs and we thought maybe we should experience more Japanese fast food, so picked Sukiya. Wrong choice.
The entire place was just…sad. The atmosphere was sad. The music was sad. The food tasted entirely of sad.
The employees didn’t want to be there. The other customers didn’t want to be there. We didn’t want to be there.
The pitchers on the tables there were full of what I think was some sort of green tea that tasted faintly like cleaning fluid. I am not 100% sure that they weren’t cleaning fluid, but there were cups on the table next to the pitchers so we made an assumption.
If this had been the States I would have assumed the employees were out back smoking out, but it being Japan, I’m not sure what they were doing except trying to escape the overwhelming atmosphere of sad. We couldn’t even get irritated at nobody being there as we stood at the register to pay because we could only wish them well.
The tepid music being piped into the dining area that was constantly being interrupted to play commercials for Sukiya was, in a weird way, absolutely perfect for the place.
The restaurant and the experience is sort of codified in my brain as the Japanese version of Nighthawks: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/111628
The evening ended with us shuffling out of the place and hitting up the Lawson’s convenience store on the ground floor of our hotel to drown our sorrows with snack food.