Cherry blossom time was the excuse that brought us to Osaka. Well, we missed them in their full glory, but there were some trees still abloom, enough for me to at least get the feel.
My consolation was I got a taste of the lovely flower at what we thought was the best tempura place in Namba, the district in which we stayed. We sat at the counter, and there, right in front us, everything was cooked. My set menu of assorted tempura came with a bowl of moist glistening rice and a steaming bowl of clam soup with chopped leeks on top. The sauce wasn’t watery at all, but so thickened by grated radish I mistook it for some kind of congee.
With a bow and a smile, the waitress pointed to a pink object on a small saucer beside some finely ground salt. “Seri brosom,” she said, motioning for me to grind it with the salt, for the fish. The blossom still gave off a hint of its subtle fragrance, and, surprisingly, had a distinct flavor that went so well with the codfish. I wasn’t sure whether to still dip it in the tempura sauce, but I ate it with the lightly salted blossom, un-dipped, and liked it. The rest of the tempura I dipped.
Surely what made everything special was the freshness of the seafood, but the dainty, almost ritualistic way the prawns, fish and vegetables were prepared and cooked just as surely added no small measure to the overall quality of both the food and the experience. The young chef held each prawn by its tail while its head began to cook before easing the whole thing, ever so gently, into the boiling oil. Once done, in a process that seemed itself measured instinctively, he scooped it out, carefully but snappily this time.
Each fried piece of tempura was served straight from the frying vat onto a strainer in front of me, on a little elevation from the counter; on the counter itself were arrayed condiments, like pickled ginger, and powdered matcha tea that could be made with hot water. No need to ask for anything; everything is there, including the bill to be presented at the counter.
Other places were partially automated. A ramen place that became an instant favorite was manned by only three, and older but very alert, persons. You press your choice of ramen after slipping money in either of two slots, for coin or bill, take your receipt, and change if any, occupy your assigned stool at the counter, and present the receipt. Water and tea were self-served. The turnover was fast —no one, by some operating considerate custom, lingered. The ramen was superb, though too plentiful for me.
Known as a foodie place, Osaka offers food tours, but Vergel and I preferred to eat adventurously, on our own. We did join a tour that included a typical Japanese meal in Kyoto, famous for its tofu. Well, it was tofu from soup to entrée to side dishes to dessert. You can imagine what that meal, with even the modest measure I had, must have done to my already high uric acid count.
Confident of some natural magic of eliminating all excess by sweating it out, Vergel finished everything, tofu or anything else. But, still in Kyoto, we preferred to feast on giant roasted chestnuts and grilled sweet yellow corn while taking in the sights of Gion, passing up the climb up its storied temples.
There’s only one Japanese food I like, but Vergel is not enamored with—Japanese curry; he likes his curry South or Southeast Asian. Luckily it was part of our buffet breakfast in the hotel. What we both loved is their coffee, low in acidity and tasting consistently great everywhere, even as machine-dispensed free for guests.
We felt so safe everywhere that we were emboldened to go by all manner of public transport—train (both regular and bullet), subway, taxi. In very public places, like transport stations, the Japanese character was most evident—always courteous and considerate to the point of selflessness.
On a train, two young working girls got on from two different entrances and came equidistant to a vacant seat. Their eyes met—obviously they didn’t know each other— smiled, bowed, one gesturing to the other to take the seat. Rather than deprive the other, neither one took it. At the next stop an old lady boarded and was happy to take it for herself.
We never got lost, because Vergel never did anything without asking to make sure not to board the wrong train and get on and off the wrong station or go in at the wrong entrance or come out of the wrong exit.
On several occasions we were amazed how accommodating the Japanese were to total strangers. One man left his shop to an instantly enlisted replacement and walked us several blocks to where the rest of the walk would take us, straight and inevitably, to our hotel, two blocks away. Certain that we got back our bearings, he bowed and smiled; we did as well and thanked him profusely.
Everywhere we witnessed proof of national discipline and a sense of the other person. They stand single file on escalators to give way to anyone who may be in such a hurry, he or she will want to climb by his own effort even while escalating.
Most of all, they are respectful of themselves, which I found evident in the clean and well-equipped public bathrooms.
How hygienic, indeed, to flush the toilet paper into the bowl, instead of risking the prospect of filling open trash bins to overflow! Sanitizers are provided for wiping the warmed toilet seat. Warm water is sprayed at the touch for washing. A deodorizing spray is provided, too, to avoid being offensive, even if unavoidably, to the next user. In order not to waste paper or electricity, the Japanese carry their own hanky-towels to dry their hands after washing.
They are certainly a far cry from the Japanese our grandparents and parents knew.
“Positively chastened by war,” as Vergel would say, but he stops himself there, before he is tempted to indict himself and the rest of us.