Thursday, 18 June 2009

Japan Diaries, part II: Nagasaki Cabaret

Our time in Fukuoka included breakfast, shrines, weddings (please note the plural), eyelid corrections and designer dogs. Those last two on signs outside shops. The main aims of the day however included adjusting to the 7 hour time difference and travelling to Nagasaki. There were two special points of interest for me in that city: the atom bomb memorial (impressive) and the former island Deshima.

Deshima was where the Dutch traders were stationed in the 17th century. During that time in the Tokugawa shogunate Japan was completely closed off from the world. Only two foreign nations were allowed to trade with Japan: China and Holland. From Europe and the colonies in Indonesia and the Americas the Dutch ruled the Seven Seas. And consequently the world. Under the joint venture of the VOC the Dutch enriched themselves without scruples. (Therefore when today’s pm tells us that what Holland is missing is a bit of ‘VOC-mentality’ BEWARE!)

The Dutch got to trade with Japan but were to have no contact with the Japanese population. The red-haired bignoses were supposed to stay on their little island all year except for one mission a year to present a gift to the shogun in Edo (Tokyo). Nagasaki has rebuilt the tiny area of Deshima, really no more than one short street. This weird era of Dutch-Japanese relations fascinates me (can you tell?) and so we visited.

However, my friend and I did not visit Deshima until the next day. First we found our hostel (Akari, highly recommended) where we had reservations. In the evening we struck out on a mission to find us some real Japanese food. There are plenty of noodle bars and western style eateries in Nagasaki but we wanted to celebrate our arrival in Nippon with something classier. And so, upon spotting one of those quaintly closed-yet-open fronts that mark Japanese restaurants, we decided to move aside our hesitations and the sliding door and step inside. Bold Dutch, eh?

The astonished faces of staff and clientele were our first clue. The all-Japanese, no-picture menu the second. This restaurant was not used to western guests. At all. The waitress ushering us to the first low table (tatami with cusions, sunken pit to leave legs under table) was positively panicking. But: once inside, you’re inside. That we took our shoes off went without saying. That is something you get used to almost immediately in Japan. We stole some glances at our neighbours to see if we had to use the provided slippers. (Probably.) The poor waitress sent the cook to explain the menu to us. Not that he spoke anything but Japanese. The menu included two set meals with fixed prices (luckily in Arabic figures) and in his explanation I could just make out ‘sashimi’, ‘miso’ and ‘tempura’. Me so proud. Point, nod, smile, arigato and hope like hell. (This is something we did a lot in Japan.)

The meal was absolutely beautiful. The tastes but also the presentation. I am an absolute sucker for chinaware and it was a feast for the eyes as much as the tongue. Only thing: S had bravely decided to put aside her dislike of fish for the trip, and failed miserably. Poor thing could hardly eat anything unless completely soaked in soy sauce.

In the mean time, our appearance did not exactly go unnoticed in this two-table-one-bar restaurant. We were very obviously the evening’s entertainment. Japanese will never directly stare at you but they’re somehow still good at looking without looking. Of course this is exactly the moment when the sushi decides to fall off the chopsticks and into the soy sauce (_SOY STAR!_) but okay. Poor S, though, had to find a way to not eat her clam miso and sashimi without the cook noticing. She did quite well.

How do you ask for a check in a restaurant where the cook is discussing you with the regulars at the bar and the waitress is hiding in the kitchen?

After we stepped outside (door nervously opened by nerve-wrecked waitress) we actually waited a short while to see if we heard laughter. We didn’t. Still, we figured that providing the cabaret for the evening was a good way of thanking the Japanese people. :)

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