I lived in Japan for many years. The standard of cuisine in Japan, particularly in Tokyo, where I was resident, is outstanding. Though my husband had a very good job, he also was immensely abusive, both financially and physically. He had money, but I was kept in penury. Oftentimes I had nothing to eat at all, after I fed him and the children. He was dressed in designer clothes. I had only two outfits, three pairs of underwear and a few pairs of ancient socks. His shoes were Gucci, mine were made of plastic and falling apart. He insisted I stayed home to care for the children, so I had to give up my career as an English teacher. I was desperately unhappy, horribly abused and downtrodden to an embarrassing degree. At the time there was no clear route out of my international marriage, so I had to stay for the sake of my children. There were a few bright spots in my life at this time: my children, my little cat, walks in Tokyo’s beautiful parks, and my husband’s hobby of eating in very fine restaurants.
When we went out together at the weekend, after the day to day mundanity of living on rice and his left overs, I ate sushi made by masters like Jiro-samma, stunning traditional kaiseki in Kyoto, interesting eki-bento meals on the way there and back, purchased at the Tokyo train station, and beautifully presented soba noodles in Ebisu soba joints. My husband ate for his own pleasure, and my presence was required for him to properly enjoy his weekends. He would reserve the best tables, even private dining rooms with very personalized service, our meals delivered with immense care. At the time this strange dichotomy of my weekday and weekend dining gave me culinary whiplash. A boiled egg, soy sauce and rice, perhaps a little horengso (Japanese spinach), and a banana was the extent of my financial ability to provide myself food. I would cook him meals he demanded in terse little notes, making shoga yaki (ginger pork), champuru (bitter melon and thinly sliced pork belly and tofu), wagyu steak and the best koshihikari rice. I would not even get a bite of these time consuming and elaborate confections. At the weekends I ate so finely, at least for one of the days, that I spent all week longing for these weekend ordeals of bad company and truly great food. My children spent the week eating cheap basic meals. For one day a week their tastebuds were challenged by meals that were works of art.
He would book one of the small walled off rooms with only one table within. These traditional private dining rooms within very special restaurants would have sunken seats and cushions instead of chairs for a more traditional dining experience. Sitting on your knees, seiza style is not comfortable. These sunken chairs and floor-level tables mimicked the refined seiza style without the pain. Generally, if the restaurant was traditional and fine enough to have private dining, then they would also not allow outside shoes within. Even less expensive and impressive places often required dirty outside shoes to be removed and inside slippers to be worn.
Before I had visited these outposts of culinary refinement, I had not bothered to think of how the dining experience moves beyond pure physical fuel, and encompasses all the senses. Fine dining is partly performance art, partly artisanal skill, mixed with a little design flair, and a devotion to the small details and perfect service. It is perhaps the most cultured expression of human civilization, that takes the necessary act of eating, and elevates it to art for all the senses. Sometimes the restaurants would have little rivers flowing under clear tiles, beautiful greenery draped the entrances. Décor varied between traditional and complex to understated muted expressions of Shibui. It was a world of perfect bamboo-walled private rooms and tasting menus of jewel like dishes. 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 elderly and smelly and wet with rainwater and I had to remove them and put them into neat little lockers, which made everybody notice my predicament. I hated them because I was embarrassed to be out with people who had so much more than I was allowed and I felt I did not belong eating alongside them.
I was so 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 not stink. My husband’s shoes were new and smart and smelt of expensive foot spray. 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 ancient stained dress, worn out and patched 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 enjoy the food.
There was one rule to eating off shared plates with my husband, and that was to eat quickly if you wanted to eat at all. 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.
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 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 it’s 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, in retrospect I probably failed to understand what was on offer on the tasting menu. 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 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?