people walking on the street

Things to do in Tokyo When You Are Trapped: Eating in Nice Restaurants With Holey Socks

I had a few pleasures while I was living in Japan, trying to survive my marriage to a Japanese man who constantly abused me physically, emotionally, sexually and financially throughout the marriage. I liked to walk in Tokyo parks, full of wonder at the cherry blossoms in spring, the weekend drummers, archers and yanki teddy boy dancers. I enjoyed going to hot springs, but that was a rare treat, as I was often too bruised, cut up and battered to strip in front of others for such naturist delights. I enjoyed going to Kodomo no Shiro, Children’s Castle, a large indoor play area, taking the children to the many floors of retro delights. They banged drums, folded origami and played traditional games, but I rarely had enough money for the train fare there for me and the babies, nor for the small entrance fee. My main hobby was surviving, and to that end I needed to eat.

I never had enough food for myself. He had a fantastic job, we lived in a lovely apartment. He wore nice suits and was always buying himself expensive clothes and shoes. Meanwhile I was dressed in rags. I never had more than one change of cheap clothes, and I would be bought a pair of shoes once a year in the January sales. I did not get to choose something I found pretty, he chose me ugly functional shoes that were as cheap as possible. I was not allowed to go out to work – he forbade it, and besides there was no one else to look after the children. In Japan child care is outrageously expensive. As an English teacher my wages would be far less than sending them to day care. When they were of school age, they were not functional enough in Japanese to attend, because their father never spoke to them. Instead he insisted they were home schooled. He took no interest or care in their education nor in their wellbeing. He simply did not care about them at all. The children were surviving him almost as much as I was. I simply kept them as safe as could be.

With the absolute pittance he left me – somewhere between 2000 and 5000 yen a day, I had to buy everything. I had to buy food, clothes for the children, shampoo, soap, household goods…and more than that I had to buy him things he demanded to eat. A bag of koshihikari rice, the only type he would eat was about 6000 yen. He would demand shoga yaki (ginger pork), or bitter melon with thin sliced beef in rich oyster sauce. He never wanted cheap curry. He turned his nose up at vegetable soup. He liked meat cooked in various ways. Meat is expensive. A piece big enough for him would come to at least 1000 yen, minimum. There was never enough for the entire family to eat, he didn’t leave enough money for me to feed the same food even to him and the children.

Sometimes when I had cooked something delicious, like shoga yaki, and I did make a wonderful shoga yaki, I would call the kids over, and take a little piece of pork from the dish and drop it in their waiting mouths like a mother hen. I would take the rice and smear it around the emptied pan, and give them the excess sauce and rice in a bowl. I would do this with extreme guilt over that fact that there was not enough money to feed them the same nice food their father demanded I purchased and cooked for him. I felt guilty, even though this was not out of family poverty, far from it, but instead their father’s abuse of the very people he should have loved the most.

Most nights I simply went without, and gave the children fish sausages and rice with broccoli, or something that was cheap in the frozen section – little dumplings and frozen peas, for 100 yen a packet, or else cobbled together riceballs and tuna and pickled cucumbers, then sat there crying that although they were not starving (though sometimes I most certainly did), that at least their stomachs were full. Sometimes their grandpa took pity on us, and took us out to a family restaurant for lunch or breakfast. The kids knew the drill, eat up as much as they could, order side dishes and desert, and fill up. There is no ‘doggy bag’ in Japan. You  have to eat it there in the restaurant, but the children would order bread rolls and stuff them into their pockets, and take all the little konyaku jellies off the table and slide them towards me to hide in my purse. I would force myself to eat more than I ever wanted to eat, knowing that my food supply was not assured, and thank the old man profusely. He might not have been able to save me completely, but Grandpa’s kindness towards us made life in Japan bearable. To this day my son remembers those meals, and tears come to his eyes. Breakfast when your mother is struggling to feed everyone because your abusive father is committing financial abuse, is apparently a memorable thing indeed.

Instead, I would cook my husband steak and premium rice, the nicest cuts of pork and chicken that he demanded to eat, and have to spend hours cooking complicated dishes, and then take the 300 yen or so I had left and feed the children. Sometimes I could not juggle that money that was left on a daily not weekly or monthly basis. How could I buy 6000 yen rice when I only had 2000 yen? Yet it was a conundrum he expected me to solve. How could I buy 3000 yen diapers? He simply did not care. It took me years and much pain, to persuade him to give me the same pitiful amount but as a lump sum every week, so I could have a chance at working within the unnecessary constraints he set, while he suffered not at all.

Only sometimes did I get to eat too. I would have to smell all this delicious food that I had to prepare, and then have it ready on the table for his return. He often came home late at night, having been out drinking, or else working the insane hours that Japanese salarymen work. If I didn’t have food waiting for him, the exact food he asked for, he would hit me, beat me relentlessly, shout at me in rough Japanese. At least half the nights I cooked he would pull the plate of food off the table, our out of the fridge where I had to place it when he was not back when he said he would be, and despite the fact that I had to spend the vast majority of the money that he left on the side for me for ‘housekeeping’ on him, he would call me over and make me watch while he slid the food into the bin, untasted. I would then have to wash his plate and start again. Sometimes he would hit me. Sometimes he would go to sleep. Sometimes he would The only way I would ever escape unharmed is if I never showed any emotion rape me. at his throwing away of the food he demanded I bought and cooked. Any reaction led to painfully disastrous consequences, and I had to keep the beatings of me to a minimum, for both the children’s sake and my own.

The default meal for me and the children when I had a little money spare, or grandpa took us shopping, would be a pot of lentil soup with vegetables. I would put it on to simmer, and in the days before I was diagnosed with celiac disease, I would make bread. Bread in Japan comes in 3 slice packets, 5 slices at the most. It is a rice culture, not a bread culture. There are some wonderful, and wonderfully expensive bakeries in Tokyo, but I did not have the money for those. Instead I would buy something marked “ultra violet flour”, which was cheap in kaldi, and throw together rolls in my tiny oven. In earlier years before we had an oven, it would be a sadder affair with rice instead. My oven was a joy. One year he decided he wanted roast chicken cooked at home. Japanese houses do not have ovens in them. There is commonly three burners and a fish grill, and that is it apart from the rice cooker. My husband came home with the oven, and although it was not intended as a kindness for me, and took forever for this little microwave combination oven to do much, it meant I could do a little more than I had been able to do with cheaper ingredients.

Because I was kept shut out of bank accounts, not given access to credit cards, nor to any family funds, I had to wait every single day to see if he would leave paper money on the breakfast bar. I would be doled out cash on a daily basis, if I was lucky. If I was not, then he would sulk and leave me with no cash, no food, no diapers, no baby milk, and absolutely no way of getting any of those things. If the baby needed milk it would cost me whatever he desired at that moment. A blow job, sex where he would hurt me and use me and leave me with clumps of my hair in his hand. He would take his time raping me, considering me his possession, his toy, his thing to use up as he wished and with no free will or agency of my own. I was utterly trapped in Tokyo with a monster who existed only for his own relief and pleasure.

My husband’s hobby was eating in expensive restaurants. If there was a new start up with a famous chef, he would want to go. We would always be taken along with him. Me and the children existed only at his bidding. When he desired our company we would have to go along with him, when he was out of largess, or did not feel like playing daddy, then the children were expected to be silent and still. Or else ma here would get a beating. He never played with our son. When the boy was small he would ask him to play on the ancient playstation that my husband had bought used for him and was years out of date At best he would get shrugged off, at worse I would be screamed at to ‘control the boy’ who merely wanted his father’s attention. One birthday grandpa had bought him a Wii, and a racing game. My son used to walk up to his father and ask him if he would like to race him. The answer would always be ‘too busy’ or ‘tired’. Still when my husband wanted us to go out with him, there was no choice. Sometimes it would be ok. Other times it would be a disaster and I would end up with him pulling his usual snatching of my bag and running away down the street with it act, leaving me and the children stranded with no money. I was never allowed to have a cell phone.

He enjoyed reserving tables or sometimes individual rooms in Tokyo eateries. Some restaurants have a cover charge for which you get a small dish, in Japanese this is called otoshi, usually some salted edamame, or a steamed egg custard with salmon roe, wakame and such in a ramekin. This ubiquitous savory egg custard is called chawanmushi. Me and the children would be forced to go with him on these expeditions, if we did not go there would be no food. He never left money on days he would be home. To eat we would have to pretend to play happy families with him. He would book one of the small walled off rooms, with a table with sunken seats and cushions not chairs. These places always insisted on taking off shoes, swapping your dirty outside shoes for clean inside slippers, or worse, walking in your socks.

Tokyoites have great sock game. Their socks are either delicate and perfect, in muted colors, or else amusing and hip. My socks were generally mismatching, ancient, and had many holes in them. The children suffered similar sock fate. Whatever I could find as cheaply as possible was on their feet.

Sometimes these places would have little rivers flowing under clear tiles that ran the length of the restaurant, beautiful greenery, stunning muted decor, bamboo walled private dining rooms with only one sunken table in them, and tiny menus of jewel like dishes. The wait staff would knock on the door before they entered with food and drink, kneeling down to serve us. I never felt quite comfortable. I mean there I was half starving, in ugly ancient, ruined clothes, with very cheaply dressed children, eating a starter that cost more than my entire wardrobe. It was more than uncomfortable, it felt wrong, and I was desperately embarrassed. These beautiful places where Tokyo’s rich and successful go to eat and be seen would be hidden behind sliding doors, or up on a high floor of some otherwise nondescript building. I loved the anticipation of waiting to see what was behind the doors. The décor was always perfect, intimate and expensive, and the service generally as intense. I hated these trips and loved them too. I hated them because I had to spend time with him. I hated them because I never had good clothes, and the other patrons were impeccably dressed – as was my husband. I hated them because my shoes were never decent, they were elderly and smelly and wet with typhoon rainwater. I loved them because it felt like a vacation from the suffering. He would mostly be in a good mood and enjoying himself immensely. I would get to have a few drinks and take the edge off life, and the children would get to eat wonderful food. To this day my son remains quite the appreciator and cook. He never would have taken an interest in cooking if it were not for these trips.

I was ashamed of my shoes. They were invariably falling apart at the sole, they let in water from typhoon drenched streets, no amount of cleaning could make them smell alright. My husband’s shoes were new and smart and smelt of expensive foot spray he purchased from the Body Shop. My socks were worse. Since I had no access to money and was only given tiny amounts to feed and clothe my self and the children, I only had a few socks, generally an odd number, always the cheapest I could find, which always had something embarrassing like Pooh Bear on them, they were always drenched and holey. My socks humiliated me. I took off my awful rotting shoes, and slid my feet into slippers. Sometimes there were no slippers and I had to walk shamefaced across expensive floors in my holey socks, surrounded by the clean, the expensive and the well dressed. I would feel relief at the private room where nobody could see my old stained dress, worn out at the elbows.

The children were cheaply dressed, somewhat better than me, their shoes and socks more often acceptable, sometimes not. He didn’t much care about spending money on them either. The three of us would huddle together, as he would beam and order plate after plate from tasting menus. I had to force myself not to look at prices, as I would get ridiculously angry and failing to hide such emotion was far too dangerous for me.

There was one rule to eating off shared plates with Pig – eat quickly. He would inhale food faster than the speed of light. I would serve the children, and try and pick up a few morsels before the dishes emptied into his gaping maw. I would waggle my eyebrows at the kids and make them smile, while they tried to grab a speck of duck and a pancake, or a few salted edamame.

We ate at tiny places with Michelin stars. Me with black eyes and broken fingers, two tiny children, and him, playing the indulgent, the good father, the appreciator of food. I would hate it. He would order me ume sours, which I loved, and tell me about the food and his work in loud boorish tones.

I started to judge places by the standard of their chawanmushi – the savory steamed egg custard made with stock. I did not enjoy the dish, slippery, slimy eggy and fishy, but I enjoyed noting when it was too salty, or too sweet, or the chunks sadly fallen to the bottom, or the empty chawanmushi with all the beauty on the top and underneath empty slippery barely set egg. I do not enjoy barely cooked egg, but I would sit there disapproving at custards which were solid and had a foam of bubbles cooked into them from too fierce a heat. Even worse, ones that had been precooked and cooled and reheated turning into a thick jelly paste! The game of sitting in holey ugly clothes and disney socks with my toes poking out, judging egg custard like a Michelin reviewer became my little hobby.

One day we went to a particularly plain looking place. I had no idea of its reputation. It was like sitting in someone’s front room. I listened straining to understand as the server told me about the dish. I knew what I wanted, but in retrospect I probably failed to understand what was on offer on the tasting menu. It didn’t much matter, I knew I wanted to try the steamed egg custard. A neat pot of chawanmushi was set down in front of me with a small spoon. Steam rose from the surface, as chunks of fine seaweed and scallop poked out breaking the surface in a rocky sea filled promise. Dipping in the spoon, I came up with a silky custard, a mouthful of creamy lightly salty goodness, the slime texture that the Japanese love so dearly, perfected. I hated it. It was perfect. I dipped my spoon back in, and was rewarded with a tiny chunk of star cut carrot, and again, a perfect tiny shrimp. Finishing the pot, tears came to my eyes.

My game was over. I had eaten the perfect chawanmushi. The server came to take my dish, I told him that it was perfect. The best. I wanted to tell him about my game and the thick pastes and the uncooked snot, and the empty pots that promised so much but gave so little. I wanted to tell him I hated steamed egg custard, but this was the most perfect thing I had ever tasted. Thank you. I hate it. Instead he saw the tears in my eyes, and my worn clothes, and my holey socks and my black eye, and gave me a smile. The rest of the evening passed in pure attentiveness. I felt they were cooking just for me. I didn’t pay attention to the conversation, instead I asked if I might have some warm sake, and ordered a plain dish of steamed fish. I almost ruined it by fileting it myself, but instead was stopped gently before it was whisked off and taken off the bone for me, returned in a perfect twinned confection. I just about gave up. They beat me. I knew I would never eat like this again

I felt human. For the first time in years I felt human. My husband restrained by the impeccable service which set food in front of me, the children entranced by morsels and coloring books, I could have fallen in love with whoever was cooking for me, and the kind man setting food in front of me.

I stopped wanting to choose, and instead wanted to know what else this place could do.

I later found out it had three Michelin stars. Three Michelin stars and treated me, in my holes and my cheap dress, and my disney socks and my black eyes, as if I was someone important. Someone real. Someone who mattered. I do believe they kept my spirit alive a while longer.

We left the restaurant into the Tokyo fall air. Mr Charming looked at me and said “well that was disappointing! I am still hungry! Anyone want a McDonalds?” I cried again. How could I be married to a man who had no soul?


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