An American eats in Tokyo for the first time
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Japanese food
Credit: Gif by Lauren Kolm

I recently learned the Japanese phrase ichi-go ichi-e, which basically means “one encounter, one chance.” It was originally used to approximate the impermanence of a chanoyu tea ceremony, a Japanese art dating back to the 16th century. You enter as an invited guest and sit down in an intimate space with room for only a few people. Your host has already chosen the implements they will use to prepare some green tea for you, the honored guest. Even if you return someday, the ceremony will never be the same as it was today.

Once in a lifetime, never again, making it all the more vital to savor the present. It is bittersweet, beautiful, and, for an American like me who’s stumbling through Japan for a couple of weeks groping blindly at millennia worth of culture, a novel way of thinking. As an ignorant gaijin, I wanted to discard all the cultural baggage that’s been built up through the long, complicated history of American and Japanese relations. It would be a tall order for an inaugural trip to Tokyo.

Fortunately, there is at least one tradition in Japan that transcends all language, one that thinkers had to build entire schools of thought to describe.

I’m talking, of course, about the food.

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Credit: photo by FRANCK ROBICHON via getty images

It was brutal seeing our “fast food president,” who once recoiled at the prospect of eating “raw fucking fish” and instead ate at a Tokyo McDonald’s, eschew the rich cuisine of Japan when he was there earlier this month. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—who one commenter called “a trainer of wild animals”—greeted his swinish guest with the homey comforts of cheeseburgers, some “Donald and Shinzo Make Alliance Even Greater” hats, and an invitation to go golfing.

Prime Minister Abe falling ass backwards into a sand trap during that golf outing may provide some karmic comfort for gourmands the world over who know just what a dereliction it is to not boast of Japan’s food. Alas, humiliation is at the core of the US-Japanese relationship, a dark streak both Abe and Trump embody.

Starting with Commodore Matthew Perry’s savage opening of a peaceful Tokugawa Japan to international trade in 1853, through Japan’s avenging drive towards modernization and imitation of the West’s brutal imperialism, culminating in the far-ranging annihilation of the Pacific War, the history of our two countries has been traumatic. Today, following decades of alternating imitation and rivalry between Japan and its new Cold War sponsor, the tension remains unresolved. US-style baseball uniforms coexist with kamikaze fighter planes in the far-right revisionist Yūshūkan war museum, while the neon garishness and luxury consumerism of Tokyo neighborhoods like Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Akihabara seem almost like parodies of frenetic urban America.

But Japan’s overcharged go-go American influences reveal more than they obscure. Take one of Japan’s greatest centers of culinary perfection: 7-11.

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Credit: photo by Dan o'sullivan

If you think I’m joking, you haven’t been to a convenience store in Japan. From the moment you discard your umbrella in the drying rack in front your local 7-11, Lawson’s, or FamilyMart, til the moment you exit and are shocked to find no one has stolen your umbrella, you are in the realm of fast food at its best. The inside of your corner Lawson’s—my favorite of the combini chains—may look like an American convenience store, but make no mistake: You can do some serious eating here.

Racks of prepared food line the interiors of combinis, stacked with cellophane-wrapped sandwiches and ready-to-eat meals. The pork katsu sandwich—thick, with a touch of honey ginger—is for a few dollars what you might get charged $11 at some American restaurants, and better. The snack aisles contain all the usual chips and candy, butalso bags of dried chewy squid strips and wasabi-flavored Kit Kat bars. At the front of the store, behind the counter, there are stacks of karaage, fried chicken—juicy, hot, and unbelievably tender—and chicken nuggets. The star of the show, beloved of chef Anthony Bourdain, are Lawson’s egg salad sandwiches, an MSG-enhanced dream blend between two slices of the most pillowy white bread I’ve ever eaten, the crusts surgically removed.

Though all the combini also sell more traditional Japanese food the triangular onigiri rice balls, wrapped withseaweed and stuffed with pink tuna, are delicious and shockingly filling—it’s hard not to walk away with the feeling that American junk food is being beaten at its own game. The care for not only the quality of the food, but how it felt to eat it, was what stood out.

From the little piece of “Lawson’s” branded tape keeping the chicken boxes shut to the satisfying slide-open design of a box of Meiji chocolates—which can also be used as puzzle pieces—to the automated ticket machines used to customize your bowl of ramen, even the most fleeting and disposable of purchases had some subtly attractive and intuitive design guiding its creation.

At least, that’s what I thought, standing in a Narita parking lot eating fried chicken right out of the bag: Here was something distinctly American, somehow remade.

If it’s any consolation, America is hardly alone on this score. As traced by cultural historian Morris Berman, the history of Japan is replete with the incorporation of foreign traditions and influences into the creation of something new. From Buddhism, to the kanji alphabet, to ceramic pottery, to even the aforementioned tea ceremony—all have their origins in South Asia, China, and Korea. It was something I saw illustrated over and over again in Japan: using what works best, from any source, without a Western concern for symmetry, yet crafting it to near perfection in a distinctly Japanese style.

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Credit: photo by dan o'sullivan

The Japanese novelist Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, in his seminal 1933 essay on the aesthetics of Japan, “In Praise of Shadows,” writes that “it has been said of Japanese food that it is a cuisine to be looked at rather than eaten.” He elaborates: “I would go further and say that it is to be meditated upon, a kind of silent music.” For a city of flashing light and insane energy, Tokyo is remarkably quiet. Even walking through every massive intersection crowded with multilevel retail insanity, or within each train station’s enormous, pulsing food halls, the music makes its effect felt.

The nigiri, crafted from fish caught that day, on plates, rough-hewn, asymmetrical, exemplifying wabi, in an impossibly quiet corner of the otherwise manic Tsukiji. Tsukiji, the world’s largest and busiest fish market, packed with people and drowned in rain,yet, searching out the one sushi restaurant I’d been recommended, it was startling, physically startling, being led by my waitress through a labyrinth of tight hallways, emerging into a quiet, wood-lined sushi bar, a serene redoubt that felt miles away.

The savory pork broth and heaping extra noodles in a seven-seat ramen shop tucked between two others and wedged under a massive highway in the otherwise upscale Ginza district becomes something ineffable, the dim lights and friendly service lending some resonance missing in an airy, bright dining hall. The packed, dark izakayas—taverns with yakitori skewers of crispy liver and roasted chicken hearts cooked over open flames—dozens of them, packed along the alleyways. The stand-up ramen joints in every train station, the cooks greeting you cheerfully in the golden light, warm inside.

The 14-seat basement sushi bar of chef Naomichi Yasuda, down a flight of stairs into a basement space beneath a grain store, its proprietor working late into the night. Yasuda, the greatest of all, a wild kid from Chiba (the Japanese equivalent of my Long Island hometown, he explained) who conquered Manhattan, returning only to show Tokyo they were doing sushi all wrong.

If not the greatest sushi chef on Earth—and he may have a strong claim—Yasuda is the most interesting. A controversial and idiosyncratic force of nature in the sushi world who cheerfully deprecates his more derivative peers as “fish-benders” with a hearty laugh, while explaining how his methods of freezing fish actually improve their flavor, Yasuda glides behind the counter like a shark in deep sea. And over the course of a 20-piece omakase course, Yasuda combined that Japanese aesthetic of craftsmanship, with the brashness of that New Yorker who, incredibly, it emerged lived for years in the same Astoria, Queens, apartment my father lived in as a child.

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Credit: photo by dan o'sullivan

The fatty toro tuna was as red as a bleeding heart. Salmon roe, merry orange balls brimming over the sides of the nori wrap, salty with a bitter twang. Orange clam, an alien-looking tangerine glob that tastes like the sea. Seared sea urchin, pink sea bass, creamy black shell sea urchin, baby sardines, impossibly small, like shrunken fish. The rice was vinegary and sweet at the same time, and lingered on the tongue. Sweet shrimp as meaty as a chicken breast, seasoned with Spanish table salt. Four-year-old wasabi and housemade miso soup.

With his curious mix of Japanese respect for tradition and very American scorn for his competitors and their rote ways, in his reminiscences, enlivened with his iconoclasm, Yasuda was the anti-Trump and anti-Abe, in the shadows.

It was hard not to feel the full weight of a difficult thing done well, with an airy joy and shrugging modesty, by a master craftsman. It’s certainly not the prevailing way of doing things back home in America, nor, historically, for me, in my own loud, selfish pursuits. As an unlikely Zen practitioner, country music legend George Jones might have hit closest: “Beneath still waters / there’s a strong undertow.” Like the steaming hot takoyaki—fried octopus ball flecked with seaweed and bonito flakes—purchased hesitantly from a street stall, you never know how perfect something might already be until you stop talking.

Fried octopus balls are delicious, and cockiness and self-assuredness are distinct; I knew such things now. With the unbowing Yasuda’s farewell, “Until next time,” nothing more dramatic needed to be said. Quiet is another way of speaking; the sounds of the meal, its own music. “Our cooking depends upon shadows,” Tanizaki writes, “and is inseparable from darkness.” For Tanizaki, Japanese cuisine becomes not merely more delicious, but a more cosmic experience, in corners, in shadows, in quiet craft, and in what doesn’t need to be said aloud.