Our feast Monday night kept us out later than our still jet-laggy bodies were ready for but we couldn't have been any happier. Our hosts ordered a most excellent assortment of sashimi, fanciful chicken skewers, a carrot salad made from rather large, sweet carrots from Kyoto, and also a red snapper. When asked if we were interested in trying anything specific, after it was clear we were not done eating, I couldn't resist: I ordered the horse sashimi.
Yes, that is correct: raw horse. The presentation was superb, and the meat very tasty. I began with a piece of very dark red meat, that I was told likely came from the thighs. I followed this with a piece of lighter meat (closer to the body), then finished with what i at first thought was a type of cheese, but it was actually the mane. It wasn't the hair, but rather the fleshy part of the mane along the horse's neck. That one took a little getting used to and offered a more challenging texture to overcome.
For drinks, we began the night on beer then our host ordered three varieties of sake brewed in her hometown area in northern Japan. The sake was poured, overflowing actually, into a large square glass placed inside a circular bamboo cup. In America, we try to avoid cramming square pegs into round holes, but here in Japan I realize that doing so simply means you're about to drink some damn fine sake. The glasses were passed around the table for sharing and tasting -- we're all friends here, right? -- then we each settled on our favorite variety. With a beer and an overflowing glass of sake in me, it was time to move on to the shochu, Japanese whiskey. Shochu is a clear alcohol, fermented from a variety of starches like buckwheat, sweet potato, and more. The sweet potato version is the strongest which makes sense since those little spuds are used to make ethanol. The large spheroid of ice in the glass gave the shochu a nice, chilled temperature but was not needed to douse any "fire-water" affect, as it was very easy to drink. Dangerously so, perhaps.
The excitement of Monday night carried over to Tuesday morning when, after a breakfast of cold bacon, scrambled eggs, and miso soup, Tim and I walked through northern Osaka to the Yodobashi Camera store, an 8 floor feast for your electronical senses. With entire massive floors devoted specifically to cell-phones, cameras, audio/visual equipment, and of course, a floor just for toys and videogames, it was clear we could spend hours there. And so we did.
Did you know that there are over 400 styles of ear bud speakers for your iPod in Japan? Oh yes. Some costing hundreds of dollars for the purest of sounds. Others adorned with Swarovski crystals, and still others made from exotic hardwoods.
The camera floor had what seemed to be the contents of every camera shop in New York City all rolled into one giant store. I was relieved to see my new Canon G10 costing well over $100 more in Japan than the price I paid through B+H Photo. For those who like to torture themselves with camera-envy, the store also had a Canon Mark III on the floor, retailing for the US equivalent of approximately $8000. Lenses sold separately.
The videogame aisle, on the one hand, wasn't quite as extensive as, say, a Best Buy or Toys R Us. At least not in terms of games, but what they lacked in shock-value for games was more than made up for by their assortment of strategy guides. The sheer number of books and the space devoted to them in the store was shocking. An entire wall lined with hundreds of books from all genres, systems, and some even going back several years.
Later that day, after another very successful interview session and demonstration at [XX--censored--XX] Tim and I said farewell to our hosts who would be riding the shinkansen back to Tokyo. I took a quick 90 minute sojourn up to my room to get some work done before we met back up for a night on the town; I wanted to see the neon.
As I had mentioned in an earlier post, our hotel was in the Kita district of Osaka, the business part of town, but tonight we were headed south to Dotombori Street, Osaka's bustling epicenter.
We walked and talked our way several blocks southeast of our hotel to a subway station then took a deep breath and sacked up for the challenge of buying our own subway tickets. Our initial attempts were ones of confusion. We stood slack-jawed and perplexed, staring at the confounded machines trying to make sense of what seemed to be a very straightforward process. We simply had no idea how to go about buying a ticket. I had done the research ahead of time, I knew where we wanted to go and on which train, but the vending machine ticket seller blocked our path. Eureka! We figured it out. Finally.
Two stops later, we emerged from the underground hustle and bustle of the subway station at Shinshaibashi to find a world of high-end department stores sprawled out around. Oh, look, a Louis Vuitton store. There's one for Dior. Oh, a three-story Chanel store.
This next statement can't be overstated: the Japanese are incredibly stylish, fashion-conscience people. And, with respect to the women, they look damn good.
I've never seem something so sexy as a twenty-something Japanese woman in a short plaid skirt, black stockings, and thigh-high boots straddling a relic of a bicycle at an intersection. A poofy winter white coat with fur trim completed the ensemble.
We guys call this material.
Nevertheless, as impressive as the high-end shopping opportunities on display were, Tim and I are of simpler taste and lighter means, so off we went into the nearby arcade. Not a videogame arcade, but rather a narrow primarily pedestrian-only street lined with hundreds of shops, cafes, pachinko parlors, hostess bars, and massage parlors. It was a feast for the senses and a place where even the locals seems ready to stop and take a photo. I took dozens. Some are comical, others showcasing the crowds and signs, others the neon glitz, and others of Tim playing Taiko Drum Master in an arcade.
Being a badge-carrying member of the Eats All Streetfood Association, I did not hesitate to order up a half-dozen tako-yaki at the first vendor I encountered. Tako-yaki is the specialty of the Osaka area and, quite literally, is a fried ball of octopus. It's drizzled in a teriyaki sauce, then drizzled again with a white mystery sauce, then given a heavy showering of grated ginger flakes.
It wasn't that the tako-yaki was bad. And It wasn't that I was afraid my limited shellfish allergy might extend to octopus. No, the problem with the six tako-yaki in my hand was that they were too damn hot. Not spicy hot, mind you. Hot, hot. Hot food is fine. I like hot food. I seek out hot food. This was ridiculous. My first bite instantly blistered the roof of my mouth and I dropped it back into the carton. I was able to, over ten minutes, consume my first tako-yaki and while not necessarily soemthing I will miss back in the States, it wasn't bad. I pierced the other tako-yaki in attempt to cool them off, but despite this effort, my second oco-ball was so excruciatingly hot that I had no choice but to spit the entire thing back into the dish.
At least I wasn't in a society with particularly clean, formal, people all around me.
A cauldron of bubbling batter and semi-solid octopus gushed from the tear I had put into the ball before spitting it back into the dish and, I believe it was at this time when Tim's willingness to try it began to evaporate, not unlike the endless supply of steam emanating from the ruptured morsel in my hand. Twenty minutes after buying the tako-yaki, unable to eat more than two of them due to the scorching temperature and unwilling to continue holding the plate of food, I finally dumped it into a garbage can.
I wasn't the least bit surprised to see a near-identical carton of tako-yaki, half-eaten, inside that same bin.