We reminisce our evening at Takonyudo. The evening starts out with us hunting down this local restaurant known to specialize in akashiyaki, grilled egg batter cooked with tako (octopus chunks). In wet weather, we walk in search of Takonyudo along Kamiyachi-dori, the street located along the Takase River canal and also known for Kyoto's vibrant nightlife with down-to-earth and cheap dining jaunts. Unable to read Japanese characters on the restaurant signboards, we resort to peeking through each entrance we pass by to see if it fits with the description of what we've read about Takonyudo. Finally T spots a picture of an octopus at the entrance of one of the tiny restaurants. We peek through the glass door and hanging yellow curtain and see the horseshoe counter lined with bowls. Score. This is Takonyudo.
We take a seat at the horseshoe counter. There is no menu here but the counter is lined with bowls and pots of obanzai (Kyoto specialties) so that customers can see what the kitchen has prepared for the day and then order the items. Not all available dishes line the counter so if you have a particular item in mind, be sure to ask if they have it. Dishes are served in small portions and meant for sharing with your companion(s). In true Japanese style, when eating, drinking, and conversations are combined, dishes are ordered gradually with 1-2 items at a time. At Takonyudo, the lovely chef and his wife tend to the customers. We start our night with some beer and tell them "Nama biru oneigaishimasu" (draft beer, please).
And so our very memorable night in Kyoto begins.
Obviously realizing that T and I are gaijin (non-Japanese), the very pleasant salaryman sitting next to us at the counter asks in his basic English knowledge, "Where are you from?". At this time the friendly chef and his lovely wife take interest in our conversation. We tell them that we are from America and say "Amerika shusshin desu". Further on I say "Malaysia umare desu" and T says "Singapore umare desu". The chef's wife then smilingly says that she visited Malaysia during the time of "Mahathir-san" and her husband chef says "Prime Minister".
We ask our new dining acquaintance for his food recommendation and he says something in Japanese to the chef's wife. Shortly after, the lady brings us a small bowl of stew with beef and konnyaku (devil's root jelly). The stew is prepared with a dark liquid-y sauce with a light drizzle of red colored oil. Despite its dark color and as a stew, the dish is not heavy and in fact very tasty.
Thanks to a magazine article we read, we wish to try their pond snail dish and not knowing the Japanese word for it, all we ask is "Snail?" in English. Alas, when we realize that neither the chef, his wife, nor our new dining acquaintance understand the word, Tim proceeds to gesture with his fingers mimicking the action of something walking very slowly before using his fingers to "draw" the shape of a snail's curled shell. It turns out that the gesture, which is actually quite a hilarious sight in itself, isn't any more helpful . Before we know it, our new acquaintance whips out his cellphone from his pocket and tries to call his friend who presumably speaks some English. T brings out the iPad and goes to Google Translate. At one point, to our amusement, the chef's wife casually tells other customers that we are from America. A truly funny moment.
Note: It is true when people say that if the Japanese do not understand you, they will try their best to communicate with you.
With the Japanese word for snail that we just learned on Google Translate, we try it out on them. Then we hear the chef and his wife say two English words that sound like "small shells" and before we know it, she walks towards one of the pots, scoops something into a bowl, and shows it to us. Ah hah, that's right! They have snails! We instantly say "Hai!" (yes, in Japanese) and they respond with "Ahhh". At this time, loud laughter ensues among us. Language barriers can be interestingly fun but this is only the start. The tanishi (pond snails) is simmered in soy sauce and is perfect with our nama biru (draft beer).
We learn from our new chatty friend that he was born in Canada, lived there until he was 2 years old, and then lived in Singapore until he was 10 before returning to Japan. He looks coy as he tells us that although he lived in Singapore his English is, in his words, "still not good". We make instant conversations with each other which include him asking if we are just visiting Japan. He tells us that he personally ranks the best and most interesting cities in Japan with Tokyo (#1), Osaka (#2), and Kyoto (#3). A large part of our lively conversations throughout the night involve him attempting to communicate with us in English, including taking short pauses where he thinks of the appropriate English words to convey his thoughts. On our part, we attempt our equally poor and limited knowledge of the Japanese language.
Now, not only is our new friend chatty and friendly towards T and I. He orders some fried yuba (tofu skin), another Kyoto specialty, and tells us that it is for us, from him. He then gestures the action of putting some salt onto our plates and lightly dipping a piece of yuba into the salt before eating. T and I enjoy the delicate and crispy fried yuba while feeling incredibly honored by his display of graciousness. Soon, the second guy who came in with him informs us that it is the chatty friend's birthday today. T gets the birthday boy a round of nama biru (draft beer) and we all toast in celebration. Oh, what a wonderful night that transcends language barriers.
T and I get more food for ourselves and this time we get oden to satisfy my craving for these boiled Japanese fish cakes and konnyaku (devil's root jelly) on a cold and wet night.
In conversation, T gets curious about the nearby city of Kobe and asks our new dining friend about it. He tries to tell us about Kobe but ends up being able to do so only by having 3/4 of his response in Japanese while the 1/4 in English. He then calls out to a white American young man who is eating with 3 Japanese women as a group; they are seated close to us at the counter. Our chatty friend starts talking across the counter to the American in continuous strings of sentences in Japanese. At this point, the night becomes increasingly hilarious. Not understanding a word that is said, T laughs and says "Wakarimasen" (I don't understand). Then, the American turns to us and says "He said to tell you that he doesn't think Kobe is traditional Japan because it has influences from all over." Right after this, our new friend had a revelation of an English word he wants to use to describe to us about Kobe and quips "Hai! International!". He starts speaking again across the counter to the American and the latter conveys the message to us: "He said he would like to buy you a dish because it's his birthday. It's from the bottom of Kyoto's heart."
Once again we are touched by his sincere generosity and let him recommend his favorite dish. Seeing that we already had some konnyaku (devil's root jelly) that night, he gets one with a different preparation for us while saying "It's konnyaku but it tastes different." We tell him "Arigato" (thank you) and he replies "Enjoy Japan". The dish indeed tastes different from other konnyaku preparations we've tried. His recommendation is spot on. It is boiled in a spicy and sweet soy sauce, and the flavors are well-absorbed into the konnyaku.
Our new chatty-generous-lively friend then decides to be more tech savvy as he takes out his smartphone to use the translator app. He types Japanese into the translator app and then shows us the translated words in English. In hopes to explain to us why he now decides to use the translator app, he shows us the translated word on his smartphone: Convenience. Though at various points in the night, he turns to his other friend (who came for dinner with him) asking how to say certain words in English. Seeing this, Tim is prompted to ask that friend "Your English is good?" The friend laughs and says "No, I am pure Japanese. Born and live in Japan." Tim says "But he is asking you about some English words." Our chatty friend smiles shyly and says "Top secret." Yes, it is top secret that he previously lived in Singapore because his English is "still not good."
The two gentlemen end up leaving the restaurant before us and on his way out, he asks the American (the poor American who is now our token translator!) how to wish us a Happy New Year in English.
Note: This visit to Japan was in December but only now am I catching up with this blog entry!
A great, albeit short, friendship is formed with so much graciousness experienced by T and I that night. We may not see our new chatty friend again but for the memories of that night at Takonyudo, that is stuff that great friendships are made of.
Very little English is generally spoken here though the chef can speak some English words.