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Paddling in a sea of difference

My Travel Writing Scholarship 2011 entry - Journey in an Unknown Culture

JAPAN | Monday, 21 March 2011 | Views [589] | Scholarship Entry

“Konnichiwa”. I greet the staff at the eatery that is hidden in a small alley, behind white paper lanterns and blue cloths mentioning signs I don’t understand. The soft wind spreads the smoke from the kitchen through the air. Great advertisement that guides me to the entrance. The alley appears as a place where you can inhale the scent of days long gone. Where an old woman in her kimono witnesses a Samurai disappearing around the corner, carrying his shiny sword. “Irasshaimase”, the staff almost shouts back to welcome me. I feel like giggling but immediately get a grip on myself and realize I’m paddling in an unknown sea. This culture is not just different. It’s unique. “Welcome to Japan”, I tell myself.

I’m excited to travel in a country that is drenched in characteristics, developed without being affected much by outside influences. Discipline is high, traditions are cherished and customs count. It seems that everything in Japan breathes respect, finesse and elegance.

The language on the machine that will print my order is unreadable to someone who only knows a few Japanese words. Luckily, resourceful thinking minds invented plastic food displays. A Japanese creation lots of establishments use to lure customers and that is slowly conquering ‘neighbouring’ countries. It’s also a means to the insecurity of the ignorant tourist. These handmade replicas look so real you want to get your teeth in them. Steamy white rice and roasted garlic chives, topped with a moist square-shaped egg. Glittering noodles saturated in shrimp bisque. Crispy roasted chicken with yellow rice. Pastry-shaped sushi with fresh eel. The coin jingles its way down the machine and I press the button that corresponds with my choice of food.

The chef reaches for the note with both hands placed together, his palms facing up. A Japanese way of showing respect and politeness. I hand him the note the same way, slightly nodding my head. Then, an awkward situation occurs: he’s saying something I don’t understand. After several friendly attempts he points out the soba and udon noodles. “Oh sorry, the udon noodles please”.

Traveling in Asia means eating with chopsticks. At least I can safe myself another embarrassment: I can even eat rice with them! I try to remember not to stick the chopsticks upright in my bowl of rice: a way of offering rice to the dead in buddhist rituals.

The delicate spices boost the flavour of the dish the multitasking chef stirred up in an envious capable and fast way, in between greeting people, telling the staff what to do (so it seemed) and keeping his kitchen clean. The food is cheap and simple but it sure tickles my taste buds. Less is more is an art Japan is very well acquainted with. In the next few weeks I hope to stumble upon bits and pieces that form this unique culture. For now, I humbly receive this meal. A translation of ‘enjoy your dinner’. Itadakimasu.

Tags: #2011writing, travel writing scholarship 2011

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