Familiar Tastes Far Away

I’m sorry if I accosted you before my trip to Japan. Over spring break I traveled to Tokyo with the Harvard College in Asia Program (HCAP), a student group that organizes social, cultural, and academic exchange programs between Harvard and six universities throughout Asia, and I was more than determined to turn HCAP into a culinary pilgrimage. I asked everyone who had lived in or visited Japan to list the best restaurants in the city—a layover in Osaka or a grandmother at the base of Mount Fuji counted you as an expert enough. I emailed Professor Ted Bestor, author of “Tsukiji”­—a 400-page tome on the fish market in Tokyo—and begged him to compile a foodie’s checklist. I shoved my diary into the hands of HCAP Japan’s former president and demanded he draw a gastronomic map of Tokyo.

I was more than a little overzealous, but my requests turned up little. My survey yielded a suggestion to find “real soba, real udon, real ramen,” (a pointer as specific as “find a real hot dog in New York”) and an arrow in my journal pointing to Osaki, a small district in western Tokyo where the best ramen bar supposedly existed. The only concrete destination on my itinerary was Tsukiji fish market, but the Japanese delegates hadn’t scheduled a visit until the last day of the trip. With typical early spring break optimism, I thought my column would be long finished before then.

The soy fish, pork soup, and tofu I had the first lunch were good, the pumpkin flan was interesting, and the display case full of rice marked “Lice” was touchingly Lost in Translation. Everything was distinctly Japanese, but nothing other than my having eaten it all in the same city made it coalesce into a single story. The rice balls for breakfast, the chicken and egg dish called Oyako Donburi (literally “mother and child rice bowl”) for lunch, and the custard-filled crêpe at a street corner in Harajuku the next day equally eluded a coherent column arc. Despite, or perhaps because I wanted so desperately for my experience in Tokyo to fit neatly into pre-determined, necessarily punctuated storylines—the quest for the best ramen bar! My dangerous Fugu adventure!—my search turned up empty.

Then came the nostalgic period. It started with the green tea bean jelly at the Roppongi Building in Tokyo Midtown. It continued with the lotus-seed bun at a local 7-Eleven and built right through the cow tongue before Karaoke, the glutinous rice balls at Miyajima, and the plum wine at a restaurant in downtown Tokyo that tasted exactly like Clearly Canadian’s Wild Cherry Soda. “It” was the Proustian sensation of being suddenly launched back into childhood. I was instantly four years old again, back when the bakery in Chinatown still sold green tea jelly, when my family still took vacations to Cape May and I drank Clearly Canadians by the crate, and before I’d accidentally opened my tongue sandwich and noticed the delicacy’s uncanny resemblance to my own. What a Langue de Chat did for Marcel, cow tongue in Japan apparently does for me.

I thought I’d found my story, a touching if cloying tale of recovering my roots through rediscovering tastes from my youth. But Japan escaped this column again when we left Tokyo for Hiroshima and Miyajima. Regional specialties appeared everywhere. There was the Okinomiyaki (“as you like it”)—an egg, vegetable and noodle pizza—and Momiji Manju—warm custard filled cakes in the shape of maple leaves—which are unique to Hiroshima. Not to mention the Anado don—eel rice bowl—that can only be found in Miyajima. These dishes were unlike anything I had ever tasted. The food was unforgettable and didn’t fit into my sentimental column. It was already Friday night, I was reeling, and my story was far from written.

Enter: Tsukiji Fish Market. On what would turn out to be the second to last day tourists would ever be allowed to enter the inner market of Tsukiji (too many visitors near the majority of the world’s raw fish supply is risky), we woke up at five a.m. and crammed into the metro. By 6:30, we had arrived, pushed through the crowds, and entered the central auction area. The fish stared up pitifully, the alleys reeked, the fishermen’s electric carts threatened to run visitors down, my stockings were soaked in fishy ice puddles, and I was giddy. Tsukiji is a foodie’s Disneyland and it made the late Fulton Fish Market in New York seem like a county fair in comparison. After perusing the breathtaking seafood selection, we lined up for breakfast in the outer market. The salmon, tuna, and sea urchin rice bowl I had for breakfast was unbelievable; it was unlike anything I’d ever tasted before. The tuna for once wasn’t mealy, the sea urchin was creamy and the salmon practically melted the second it hit my mouth. Yet it tasted instantly familiar, even faintly reminiscent of even dear sweet Takemura, the Square’s best attempt at sushi.

Perhaps this simultaneous familiarity and singularity was exactly why the dish was so good. Like Green Tea Kit Kat or a modern building with ancient design elements, fusing the old with the new is unparalleled when done right. Unlike New York whose residents bemoan gentrification and Paris whose Centre Pompidou and National Library offer a morbid look at modernization, Tokyo knows how to mix tradition with transformation. Shrines are married seamlessly to the city landscape, the modern buildings are marked with ancient Japanese touches like glass panes that imitate noren (a traditional cloth), and midtown high-rises are laid out in patterns that replicate ancient rock garden principles.

The food echoed this fusion. I traveled nearly 7,000 miles expecting to be blown away by exoticism but I was equally overwhelmed with nostalgia. My dichotomous experience of food in Tokyo, encapsulated and revealed by breakfast at Tsukiji, echoed exactly what made me fall in aesthetic love with the city: its conscientious fusion of old and new. There it is—enlightenment in the form of a rice bowl.

-Columnist Rebecca A. Cooper can be reached at