Anthony Bourdain; I feel your pain. For those of you in the dark, Anthony Bourdain, or Tony as I like to think he would ask me to call him should we ever meet and bond over rice wine and the still-beating heart of a cobra, is a chef turned author of 2 of my favourite books (Kitchen Confidential and A Cook’s tour) turned extreme-foodie TV travel show frontman, turned subject of a hugely funny US sitcom starring Bradley Cooper turned annoying yes-man TV whore who should have told the TV execs to go take a running jump when they came-a-knokin’ at his door and asked him to sell his soul to the Food Network for mountains of filthy cash money……and breath. “Don’t hold back, tell us what you really think.” Er, sorry, now I’ve got that off my chest, back to the point that I was trying (badly) to make.
One of Tony’s jobs that he has become more well known for was to front a TV show for the Food Network and then the Travel Channel that, in a nutshell, involved him traveling around the globe to various locations and eating all of the food at said location. Examples of previous episodes are, a trip to the French Laundry in the Napa Valley, a week in St. Petersburg eating Borscht and learning how to drink vodka, drinking snakes blood in Vietnam and sampling the world’s best sushi in Tokyo. My point (really, very badly made and drawn out) is that I bet the guy is stuffed. Full to bursting, all of the time. Ready to explode at any moment should even the words ‘wafer thin mint’ be uttered in his vicinity.
So…I feel your pain, Anthony Bourdain. Hey that rhymes! I’m a poet but I just don’t realize it.
Let me offer up another analogy to try to explain to you exactly how stuffed I am. Remember Cagney and Lacey, the 80’s lady cop duo. One hot, one…well…not. During the opening credits of the show, when Detective Mary Beth Lacey and her partner Detective Sergeant Christine Cagney are power walking down a New York street on their way to bust some caps in some asses, there is a lady that walks briefly along side the duo. That lady, wearing the light blue dress/sailors uniform/tent holds the record for the longest pregnancy in TV history. Fact.
“What the flipperty flip are you talking about?” I hear you cry impatiently. Well…interesting fact…that young lady was pregnant on our TV screens for 7 years, from 1981 to 1988, in 126 episodes. One would imagine that by the end of the show’s 7 year run, she felt pretty much ready to burst. You see? You SEE? No? Ok, I give up, I’m just sayin’ that I have eaten a lot and I feel quite full, that’s all.
So I am sitting here, one week later, in the Bamboo Bar of the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok on the banks of the Chao Phraya river, nursing a Hemingway Daiquiri (I know he was in Cuba but Thailand doesn’t seem to have a famous cocktail, and ‘nursing a Singha beer’ doesn’t sound quite as romantic), and trying to piece together an overall impression of my stay in Japan. Well just Tokyo actually. As I have often found, when only briefly visiting countries and cities, it is of course impossible to get a true picture of said city or country. To really get into the guts, the beating heart of a place, months of immersion are required, even years. So France, after having worked there on and off for several years and in multiple locations, I think I have a grasp on. Even Bangkok, having stayed here, over the years, for several months, I think I have a rough idea of what its all about. But 9 days in Tokyo, as Donnie Brasco and Benjamin ‘Lefty’ Ruggiero would say, “Forgedabowdit”.
I left knowing nothing of Tokyo’s culture, history, customs or ideals. I know nothing of what it is like to be Japanese and living in that vast metropolis. Or what the whole ‘salary man’ thing is all about, or sumo, or manga, or pachinko, or ryukin or geishas or any of that interesting stuff. To learn these things, I shall have to pay this fascinating country another visit, or ten. I do, however, know a great place for sushi if you happen to have three hundred quid burning a hole in your pocket.
I did put a tick by the ‘eat deadly blow fish’ box though.
In the 9 days I was in Tokyo I managed to eat my way through nearly 30 Michelin stars, which sounds like a lot, but when you think that Tokyo is a city that boasts 384 stars (!) in comparison with London with around 64 stars and Paris with…oh no one cares about Paris anymore, then it really isn’t that bigger deal at all. I am conscious of coming across as a massive snob (that’s snob) but just by stumbling around Tokyo and wandering into random eateries, you are probably more likely to end up in a starred restaurant than not, and with only 9 days in town and with no local to show me around i felt it prudent to book most of my restaurants before i got there. And when choosing the restaurants, i just went with what the inter web told me were the best in their fields. Best tempura, best sushi, best sashimi, best ramen, best dessert served in a coconut by a ninja who then chops off the top of the coconut with a samurai sword (actually happened) etc.
As a city, they just seem to demand a higher over all standard of food than back home in blighty. Well more accurately, a higher standard of ingredient and preparation. Whereas I still can’t get my head around the fact that a piece of fish on top of some rice garners 3 stars, I do appreciate the idea of perfection, even in its simplest form, being rewarded with the ultimate accolade. Not that the old gentleman behind the sushi counter gives a flying fish what the farts at the Michelin guide think of his rice and fish combo. He is just a master of his art and if you want to come and try his sushi, then come along, but don’t expect to be smiled at or in anyway made to feel welcome. Just eat the damn fish and get out!
(This guy really hated me i think)
I think that the difference between ‘our’ food and ‘their’ food has a lot to do with the belief that if you are going to do a job, be it cleaning a hotel room toilet, driving a taxi, preparing some grilled meat-on-a-stick or cooking a 57 course tasting menu, if you are Japanese and doing that job, it goes without saying that you will do it perfectly. There is no question of doing the job any other way. Its no biggy, its just how they do things. It’s a given. Take the toilets for example (believe me I tried, but it wouldn’t fit in my hand luggage), what is the perfect way to clean your bum? Toilet paper? Of course not, lets invent a toilet that washes your bum perfectly, the Japanese way, that leaves your bum clean, polished, disinfected and as shiny as a new penny. Go to the loo in a pub in London and you’ll be lucky not to have to use the 5 pound note in your back pocket to clean up with.
Perform ones ablutions in Japan however and you will be confronted, as I was, with the following buttons: Spray, stop, soft, bidet, dry, oscillating, massage (my personal favorite), power deodorizer, discreet, front and rear. No wander I was always late for dinner.
And by the way, what does the button on the left wash!?
The discreet button, by the way, omits a noise to drown out any embarrassing and unwanted flatulence that may ‘kill the moment’ should your partner be in the next room dressed as Princess Leia, reclining on the rotating heart shaped water-bed with a glass of champagne and a filthy look in her eyes. I had hoped and prayed that it would be either the sound of a ship’s foghorn or of morning bird song. To find out what it actually is, go to Japan.
Taxis! Taxis in Tokyo are the best in the world…fact! Again, another example of people taking pride in there work. Every taxi is spotlessly clean, inside and out. The rear doors open automatically when you approach and close automatically behind you so as not to contaminate the door handle with your filthy geijin hands. Your driver is dressed in an immaculate, pressed suit with white gloves and will then take you wherever you want to go, provided you can communicate the address to him as he probably won’t speak any English.
But all the taxis have Satnav so all you need is an address and you are good to go. Actually, scrap that last statement. Tokyo is notoriously difficult to navigate and even the locals get lost sometimes, but as I said in my last post, if the driver does have difficulty finding the particular pachinko parlor you are looking for, he would rather die than give up trying to find it for you. He will ask strangers, phone relatives, phone friends, ask the audience, go 50/50, walk up and down streets knocking on doors until he has delivered you safely to your destination. And all the while you will be safe in the knowledge that the meter is running, there is no bullshit squabbling over the fare. There is no tampering of the meter or taking the long way around to hike up the price. The price is the price. And it’s fairly reasonable to boot. Cheaper probably than a London ‘talk-the-back-legs-off-a-donkey’, ‘apples’n’pears’, ‘Mary Poppins’, cabbie. I appreciate a good taxi. Especially at the moment as I am in Thailand and getting a taxi here that will take you where you want to go with out you ending up at your final destination 2 hours late but with a new suit, some fake gems and a soapy massage, is often a trial.
Have I wandered off the point again? No, I think I’m still ok. My point I think is that the food in Japan is great and for the above reasons. And that I had a great overall experience, if a little pricey. But I do plan to go back and maybe spend longer and focus less on the food but more on meeting the people. After all, I am a man of the people.
Anyway…time for my new suit/fake gem/ soapy massage ride home. Wish me luck.