My head spun with nausea and exhaustion and the skin underneath my eyes felt like it was melting towards my cheekbones. After traveling for 12 hours from Sydney to Tokyo, all I could think about was finding something to eat. For the first time I had planned my food poorly, and for all the trips to do so, this was not the best choice. I packed only small snacks, mostly sweet, that left me with a lingering dizziness. I craved savory food, something warm and nourishing, but having just stepped foot into a new country well past dinnertime, and where I had only recently acquired a few words of the language, I felt lost. Thankfully I was not alone, I was with my best friend, Laurel. We had just spent four months studying abroad in Australia and were ready to take on one final adventure, but this one would only last five days.
I went totally against my nature and we searched for something to eat inside the airport, but as it was so late, we had no luck. Vending machines glowing neon pierced my eyes and only exacerbated my confusion with their Japanese characters a barrier, teasing me, showing me that I would not be eating in the airport after all. We decided that if we weren’t going to find food, the next best decision was to try and find the train that would take us the two hours to Shinjuku, one of the busiest wards in Tokyo, where we would be staying. My heart sank at the thought of having to wait another two hours to eat, but at that point we had to keep moving. I found slight solace in promising myself that I’d never be so negligent again with my food planning, especially not if I was traveling across the world. Not having food made me feel alienated.
It was light inside and dark outside so I couldn’t really see anything through the windows as the train rolled away from the airport. I closed my eyes, trying to envision whatever I would soon be eating, but the hunger curdled my stomach. When we finally reached our stop and retrieved our bulging bags, we stumbled off the train and onto the platform. It took us close to ten minutes to find the pathway to street level. But as we emerged into the night sky, lit by billboards and city vibrancies, we both looked up, our eyes bulged open and corny smiles drew the corners of our mouths apart.
Suddenly we forgot that we had been traveling for hours without eating. We forgot that we were in a country in the middle of the night, in the rain, where we did not speak the language. We forgot that we had no idea where our hotel was. All of the thoughts that had been pressing us had dissipated for a moment, and nothing else mattered. We felt grounded and at home. The most at home we had felt in the past four months. There is something about bustling cities that have always comforted me, maybe it’s because I’m from one and maybe it’s just the energy that they hold; but this one felt especially like New York. New but different all at the same time. Although I had no idea where or what we would eat, Tokyo’s energy revived me and I knew that everything would be alright. Ultimately we ended up finding a little spot near our hotel where we climbed up some stairs and ate huge bowls of steaming noodle soup. It was just what we were looking for.
The next day we woke up ready to search out more food. Weaving through Shinjuku’s lunchtime traffic, we descended into the train station where we found something surprising—sit down restaurants packed together that created an underground culinary tunnel. We soon learned that it was commonplace for the first platform below street level, above where the trains ran, to be filled with restaurants. Behind curtains were kitchens serving food to people sitting very close to one another. The smell of fresh tempura seafood and vegetables was irresistible. After circling the platform, we committed to the place whose aroma wouldn’t let our noses be—the smell of hot oil that has just crisped the batter outside of fish and vegetables and pungent miso. We were seated at a table next to an older Japanese woman eating alone. We ordered a tempura special with vegetables and fish, rice, and soup by pointing to a picture of it on the menu, the only way we could order the whole trip. We were thankful that most restaurants either had menus with large photos of the food or plastic replicas of the meals in the windows that could be seen from outside.
When our meals arrived, the beauty of the various plates captivated me. Large, small, and medium, made of plastic and porcelain, both round and rectangular, decorated with blue and green designs in various shades were the vessels for blandly colored foods; but my eyes reacted as if the food was vibrant and rich in color. I grew fond of the idea of having many small plates to eat from rather than just one large plate as we do in America.
Laurel and I gazed across the table at each other with looks of innocent confusion. Out of the corner of our eyes we peeked over at the old woman sitting beside us to see how she was eating her food. We followed her lead, adding the minced daikon to the light brown sauce that we dipped the tempura into. The second the first bite made contact with my tongue my eyes shut tight. All of a sudden I had that same grounded and familiar feeling that I had when we emerged onto the streets of Tokyo for the first time the night before. The crisp tempura and the sweet shrimp mixed with the salty dipping sauce and cooling daikon brought a harmony of umami to my system that I didn’t want to let go of. Again, I felt a comfort that was so familiar from something so new.
Laurel has always been in charge of navigation and maps, so I never really knew where we were at any given point and that was okay with me. I knew we were heading somewhere I had never seen before and that I would eat something I had never eaten before. We only knew three words of Japanese—“hello,” “excuse me,” and “thank you,” and we got by just fine with these. We allowed food to be the universal language that we used to interact with the culture and bring us closer to it. Food allowed me to let go of that feeling of being lost, and rather I came to feel like I belonged there over and over again. Even though the flavors were unfamiliar, the sensations they gave me allowed me to feel safe, an intangible comfort that is ignited by certain tastes. The tastes made me feel at home.
We ran all over the city on and off the trains every day, but on our busiest day we visited the Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa, a beautiful temple of red, white and gold, with an ornate shrine to Buddha. As we went inside we saw people crowded around a wall with small wooden drawers in it. We realized that it was a place to find out your fortune, as told by little slips of paper inside the drawers that matched with a number on a wooden stick that you picked out of a pile. Both of us gave it a go and got the worst level of fortunes you could get. There was a scale from great to terrible of fortune-types. Mine said something along the lines of “there will be fire in the sky.” We were flying home the next day so this news was less than comforting. We exited the temple, feeling disoriented and angry, and moved away from it quickly. For the first time on our trip we got lost trying to find someplace. We were looking for a restaurant where you cooked your own okonomiyaki (pancakes with vegetables and seafood) on a grill-top. We had tried this pancake for the first time from a street vendor in Australia. When we finally found the small entrance as it started getting dark, we were exasperated and drained.
We took our shoes off and already began to feel more at ease. We were guided to a short grill-top table where we sat down on thin mats on the wooden floor. We looked through the menu that showed pictures of different pancakes we could make. After selecting, a woman brought over two bowls filled with roughly chopped cabbage, onions, carrots, batter, and a cracked egg with a bright yolk on the top. We mixed everything up and after letting the flattop heat up we spread oil across it and dumped the contents of the bowl onto it to hear a satisfying sizzle.
The process of cooking the pancakes, taking time and concentration, calmed our nervous systems from the calamity of the fortunes. None of that mattered anymore. We flipped our okonomiyaki and finished it off with zigzags of a thick, brown, sweet-soy glaze and mayo. We took bites before it cooled down enough and as the warm dough melted onto my tongue I again got that familiar, grounded feeling. I savored every moment I had around a table, whether it was a table with chairs, a table on the floor, or the sidewalk, where we frequently squatted to eat something. I held on tightly each time I ate something and as the five days came closer to the end I held on tighter. How could I feel so at home so far away from where I lived? My stomach, which has a direct connection to my heart, knew the answer. Our five days came to an end too soon and we returned back to our home across the globe.
The sun began to rise, peeking through the blizzard that whirled snow through the streets of New York City. It was at that moment that Laurel and I realized we had not slept at all that night. We sat up talking on my bed about the adventures we had just had, debating if we should journey out for a Cronut while we had the chance, as the craze was at its peak, but the jet lag won the battle. We craved a treat, but our insomnia began to get the best of us. Suddenly though, we both perked up, remembering that we had a small Baumkuchen doughnut that we had bought in one of the magical department stores near the Tsukiji Fish Market. We had been saving it. I rustled through my bag to retrieve it, and after ripping open the plastic bag that protected it on our long journey back to the United States, we stared at the last edible piece of Japan that we had left. It was not a typical Japanese dessert, but at that moment it felt like all of Japan in a piece of dough. One bite of the Baumkuchen and I was right back in the middle of the bustling city of Tokyo, fondly remembering everything that I ate while having no idea where I was, and at the same time, knowing exactly where I was.