Recently one of my pals here in Sano took a job in Tokyo. He’s an electrical engineer from Manchester and has been here around four years. It only makes sense that he would go to Tokyo, a city that offers a whole lot more of everything, in every way, at any time of the day. But I’ll miss having him around. He had a small going-away gathering. He took us to an Indian place he likes and then we went to his favorite little pub called Mahler’s Parlor, which is an appropriately named place for a British guy to favor, since it sounds so cute when he says it. Maaah-lah’s Paaah-lah. The space was exceptionally tiny, and even with the eight or so people there it was fairly crowded. But the vibe of the place was awesome, and I wish I had known about it sooner. Upon entering there was a makeshift cinderblock step that led to a raised floor that appeared to have been retrofitted in the space. The seating at the bar was low, and the bartenders stood behind it at the level of the original floor, making them eye-level with my knees when I was standing.
It was a Wednesday night and Mahler’s was hosting a Famicom (Japanese Nintendo) night. The selection of games was remarkable, and we had a blast challenging each other to Tetris and Pac-Man. I got a little frustrated with the two-player Tetris. I don’t remember it being so mean when my opponent got points. The pub also hosts music nights, yet I can’t imagine how crowded it must be on those nights. I am eager to attend one, but the only downside to this – and to most places like this – is the allowance of smoking inside the venue. I’m not a fan, and typically avoid such places. Even back home I would turn down gig offers if they were held at a venue that allowed smoking.
I also recently found out that another fellow employee and friend will be moving to Tokyo, as he too got a job there. What’s with this mass exodus? I get it though; Tokyo is pretty rad.
And then I found out that another friend’s girlfriend is with child, and they will soon be getting married. Why all this big news? Sheesh.
I am neither pregnant nor getting married, but I DID make an awesome batch of noodle soup the other week. So yeah, we’ve all got big things to report here in Japan.
On Valentine’s Day, Elizabeth and I ventured to a fancy little vegan restaurant tucked away in the middle of absolutely nowhere. And that’s hardly an exaggeration. We discovered the place online through a little bit of high-tech Google research. The restaurant boasted a daily vegan set meal, a dog café, and a dog park. Its location was near Utsunomiya, Tochigi prefecture’s largest city. I thought, “why not check it out for a little adventure?”
We left Sano around 9:30 in the morning, catching a train to Utsunomiya. With the transfers and wait times between trains, we arrived almost two hours later. We waited around the station for the number 62 bus, which would then take us somewhere near the restaurant. According to the website.
The bus arrived on schedule and we boarded. We were the only two foreigners on the bus. In fact, we were the only passengers on the bus. The driver still made all his announcements on the loudspeaker, assuming we could understand I guess. The ride was to take around 50 minutes, but we weren’t sure which stop to get off. We only knew the approximate arrival time and bus fare of that particular stop. About 20 or so minutes into the ride I approached the driver to ask about the stop, showing him a screen shot on Beth’s smart phone. (neither of us have a data plan) He pulled over and parked the bus, and had a good look at the map. He then got on the phone with someone – his boss or dispatch office, maybe – and proceeded to have a conversation lasting close to ten minutes. He came back on and explained something in Japanese, and I explained in Japanese that I don’t know Japanese, and he let out a very Japanese “EEEEEEHHHH!!!” and said in Japanese to the Japanese speaker on the other line, “he doesn’t speak Japanese!” This went on for a little while longer, but through gestures and a few words and pointing, we agreed he’d let us out when necessary. Whenever that was.
The bus pulled over but when we paid the fare, I noticed it was about 100 yen less than what our online research suggested it would be. Nonetheless we got off the bus and had a look around. A few houses, some buildings in the distance, dry fields waiting for the next planting season. A shrine here and there. We began walking. We walked for twenty minutes or so before admitting that we had very little chance of finding the restaurant in this manner. I dialed the number of the restaurant and took a deep breath. A woman answered the phone and said something friendly in Japanese. I responded in kind with a Japanese, “I’m lost.” She asked if this was Marshall Fischer. I said it was. I asked if she spoke English and she asked me to wait. A man, or a person with a manly voice at least, got on the phone. We couldn’t pinpoint exactly where we were, so he offered to have us picked up at the nearby Seven Eleven. Nearby, as in I remember seeing it as the bus passed by shortly before letting us off. We now had to walk in the direction whence we came and hope to be identified by someone there.
We arrived at the venerable convenience store chain and were greeted by a cute woman in a cute hat cutely running towards us and waving. We hopped in the car and proceeded up the road to the restaurant. The car ride lasted about eight or nine minutes, which by my made-up calculations means we would have been walking for days before we had any chance of finding the place.
The parking lot was full, and inside there was a class in session on chocolate making. There are regular events and workshops held in the restaurant’s space, and since it was Valentine’s Day it made sense to have a class on chocolate. A little note about Japanese Valentine traditions: men do not typically do or get anything for women, but women get chocolates for men. They also will give them to friends and other members of their family. I explained the Western practices to some of my junior high students and they seemed floored by the concept.
We were promptly seated at a table near the end of the dining area. The restaurant had a very open floor plan yet was cozy and inviting. Part of the space was dedicated to handicrafts and artisan goods – natural soaps, jewelry, hair accessories, socks, cookware – while another section was reserved for foodstuffs available for purchase, including pastas, sauces, marinades, and oils. The long walls of the building had tall, almost floor-to-ceiling windows, which coupled with a few skylights allowed for ample natural light.
We both opted for a set lunch with a bread option versus rice. Our meals arrived on large wooden platters that could have been cutting boards. Each item had its place on the platter followed by a place in my belly. The food was delicious, as I have come to expect from these specialty places. The only thing I didn’t eat was the small grilled onion half that adorned the center of my platter. Onions and I don’t get along so well, but I wasn’t about to complain to anyone about it.
The dessert was a sort of fruit salad in a smooth, creamy blueberry sauce. There were pieces of yuzu, which I have long ago decided I don’t care for that much as they are very tart and lack the sweetness I appreciate in my citrus fruits. The rest of the dessert was decent, although I wouldn’t have ordered it off a menu to be honest. Beth enjoyed it I think.
Our hostess came to us and explained that the owner would give us a ride to a nearby train station when we were finished. After eating we perused the shop and picked up a few items from the food section. We were asked to wait for just a few more minutes, which was beyond okay with us. The owner, who was also the hands behind our meals, pulled up his car and we got in. He said, “Let’s go!” Beth responded, “Oh, do you speak English?” He laughed and said he didn’t. We rode to the train station, having a nice if not limited English/Japanese conversation on the way there. How long have you had the restaurant? How old are you? Any kids? How long have you been in Japan?
We arrived at the station with about seven minutes to spare before the train would arrive. Our generous chef/driver refused an offer of money for his hospitality; Japan is very much a no-tipping culture, and it can even be seen as rude or an insult to one’s profession or service. We stood on the platform and after a few minutes our new friend ran down the stairs, handing me the bag of goods I purchased at the restaurant and left in his car by mistake. I felt so embarrassed. We had to have been such an inconvenience to all of them, yet they went above and beyond to accommodate and treat us unbelievably well. I will ask you now, reader, to think of a time when you received such service in the United States. I sadly doubt you have. Yet this continues to be the status quo in Japan. Instead, we have the 2016 presidential election campaign.
Here's my platter: