Monday, 5 September 2011

Memorable Meals #1: The Governor's Lunch, K, Japan

A few years ago my then-employer decided to open a development centre in Japan, and asked me to take care of making it happen. As a confirmed lover of Japan, I was delighted to do it. It was initially going to be quite small - and as it turned out, it has stayed that way - so the initial office was in central Tokyo, in one of the sales offices. But at the time, there was talk of expanding to something much bigger, maybe hundreds of engineers, and of opening a second office later on, outside Tokyo. This led to an invitation to one of the Japanese provincial towns, where the prefecture had established an advanced research centre for computer science. I'll be discreet about the actual place, just like in Japanese (and Victorian) novels, and call it K.

As a consequence, I was invited with our Japanese country manager to visit the town and its research centre. Also on the agenda was lunch with the Governor of the prefecture (roughly the equivalent of a US state).

There was a lot involved in setting up our operation, and I was in Japan for three weeks. Luckily we were able to work things so my wife came over with me, and we rented a very nice apartment in the Aoyama district of Tokyo. That's a story for another time, but meant that we both went along to K. We took the train, starting with the Shinkansen (bullet train) line from Tokyo out towards Niigata on the Japan Sea coast. It was February - Tokyo was cold, around freezing. The train trundles through the Kanto plain for about an hour then suddenly plunges into an enormous tunnel, over 20km long.

When it came out, we were quite unexpectedly in a true winter wonderland, with huge banks of snow beside the tracks and enormous snowflakes falling gently to ground. We changed to another train, which followed the valley for a while, then plunged into another giant tunnel. At the other end it was still snowing and we thought we must be high in the mountains still - until we saw the sea. Something I know now - but didn't then - is that the Japan Sea coast gets huge amounts of snow - tens of metres are common, even at sea level. The journey continued along the coast, past small fishing towns and villages, still in falling snow. I love travelling by train in Japan, and this was perfect. By the time we arrived at K it was dark.

The next morning, the day of the lunch with the Governor, was fine, though cold. Isabelle went out shopping and sightseeing - the town has a famous park dating back to the samurai era. It was really bitterly cold and there was snow everywhere.

The lunch was very nearly a disaster before it even started. The country manager was horrified to see me on my own. "Where is your wife?" he asked, shocked. It turned out that she was expected at the lunch too - which was a surprise to me, since in Japan business is entirely conducted between men. Women in the professional workplace are treated as honorary men, but families remain unknown even to colleagues who have worked together for decades. Luckily I managed to track her down - thank goodness we both had rented Japanese cellphones. We snatched her up in the main shopping street, in a kidnap scene from a bad movie.

The restaurant could have been anything from the outside, but once inside we realised that it was an extraordinary place. It had been there literally for centuries, since the days of samurai warlords. It's the kind of place that foreigners just never see, that you see on Japanese soaps when the political bosses get together to fix something behind the scenes. Being Japan, there is absolutely nothing ostentatious or showy about it, everything is in the details.

We took our seats around the table - or rather, non-seats. The Japanese tradition is to sit cross-legged on woven grass mats, or tatami. However even the Japanese find this uncomfortable, and increasingly you find an invisible hole under the table where you can put your feet, as you sit conventionally on the edge of the tatami. In this case, it was even heated to keep our feet warm. Each place had a menu card, and ours had been translated into English. The polite conversation began. It was difficult - we had a translator, but it's difficult to be spontaneous when every remark has to be translated. In addition to the Governor, there was also the head of the research institute that we would visit in the afternoon.

I came close to making a big mistake. There'd been a program on the television the previous night about the railway that used to run to a nearby rural town, very nostalgic with shots of old people coming home from the market, interviews with schoolchildren trying to make a museum out of the station. By way of trying to make relevant conversation, I mentioned it. What I couldn't know was that another nearby long rural line was about to close, no doubt the reason the program had been shown. Rural railways are a very emotional topic in Japan - they were being built until relatively recently, in fact this one only opened in 1964, and the Governor had heard more than enough about the topic lately. The language barrier came to our aid as he defended the decision to close the line.

Every dish was exquisite, served with charm and elegance. They were all delicious. At a refined meal like this, there are numerous dishes, all served separately and cleared before the next one arrives. That's unusual in Japan, where it's more common to bring most dishes at the same time, and the notion of a western-style course is much more fluid.

Well, there was one dish that caused us some difficulty. The Japanese name is "konowata", pickled entrails of sea slug. Remarkably, you can reuse the sea slug afterwards - its entrails grow back again, a useful evolutionary trait as it turns out. Luckily for us, it is astoundingly expensive, about $50/kg, which means we only got a tiny amount of it. It was the centrepiece of its course, but could be readily swallowed without touching the sides.

There were 15 dishes in total, each served on a special plate or dish which no doubt has some traditional significance. Beer and sake were served throughout, though we drank very little considering what was in store for the afternoon. Finally the meal came to an end and, after the usual polite formalities and much bowing, we went out into the snow.

It's unlikely I'll ever experience another meal quite like that one. The evening meal, in a hotel with the heads of some local computer companies, was utterly unremarkable. The next day we returned to chilly Tokyo, by plane this time, but the memories of the Governor's Lunch will be with us forever.

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