Southern-er Japan

People from the Deep South where I grew up are fascinated by the North where I now live, and with a lot of straining, try to bend Canadian reality to conform to southern rules. Witness moose and grits; midnight softball at summer solstice, and a painfully pronounced “Youall”. Some of our neighborhood names offend Canadian ears, such as those of my visiting childhood friends Jo Jo, T-rat, Fox, and Little O. Nicknames were the norm of inclusion in central Louisiana where my Mother was called Tuta, and I was nephew to Uncle Nook, Hunk, Aunt Bootsie and Sister it was just normal. Canadians commonly gulp at the names and gawk at the mannerisms like they have seen the missing link. Redneck Alberta, as an extension of Texas, shares a lot with Louisiana in the way of trucks, fast food, and music, however, the metric system kind of throws southern visitors for a loop as do the funny plastic bills and odd $2 coins. They adapt pretty well after a few days of carrying $20 in coins or speeding tickets for going 80 mph in an 80 kph zone. But the cops are so nice. . .

Western Canada was settled by a smorgasbord of cultures, thus, decent food diversity can be drawn from Alberta’s beef and British Columbia’s fresh seafood treatments by the many new cooks from the Orient. Some say that our Japanese cuisine actually rivals Tokyo’s so I decided to take my visiting buds out for a traditional Japanese tea and sushi meal. With the legalization of Cannabis, I know “buds” has taken on a new meaning but T-Rat, Jo Jo and Little O were keen to access this Canada legal appetite enhancer.

A quiet, traditional Japanese tea house

In my back yard, they were producing blue clouds that should have drawn the fire department’s attention. As the last roach hit the fire pit, Jo Jo was complaining about munchies. I selected a high end Chashitzu or Japanese tea restaurant. Maybe that was a mistake though because amid the gales of laughter, the responses from these high GOBs (Good Ole Boys) to Chashitzu was “What shit zoo?” and “Chopped Shitzu?” I, however, know them to be durable sorts and game for anything. After all, they regularly eat spectacularly weird stuff including calf brains and scrambled eggs, crawfish, alligator tail, deer tongue, and marrow bones. It was a short walk so we strolled over.

At the tea house, we walked quietly- a relative term for a low buzzing boister- through the roji garden, also called the “dewy garden”. I endured their running commentary about “Lookit all them little raked rocks” and “Ain’t got much germination cawse them soils is mighty po’!” — “Why ain’t them lanterns far-ed up?” and “Is they gonna do some fireworks later?” I have no idea why fireworks were invoked but they are a fairly safe go-to topic as we all reverted to teenage mentalities.

Beauty, process, and decorum reign in the Way of Tea

They gave some puzzled looks when I asked our greeter if we could enter by the traditional nijiriguci— nervous glances all around -“We gonna fit thru thar?” I explained the small sliding entry portal was designed to force visiting warriors to kneel, and leave their katana swords and any lances outside. Jo Jo said “Uh oh” and reached deep to convert an apparent cod piece to a folding pig-sticker that we suggested he leave outside. He would have none of that though. Inside the tea house, all are considered of equal rank, even if we all knew Jo Jo had a folding machete by his groin. We had flubbered through the small port like so many walruses marching on the beach head.

Upon standing, we met the gaze of a beautiful woman in an elegant silk kimono motioning to a sign saying “Please remove footwear”. This is logical after traversing a dewy garden of small rocks. The woven grass tatami mats are delightful on the feet but delicate; like walking through a soft grass pasture barefooted. There were no slippers big enough to fit Little O’s size 13 feet so he went sock-footed as Fox barked “Watch ‘at cow pie!” and Rat observed “I kinda like it when them gals start in tellin’ me to take ma’ clothes off.”

We hadn’t even gotten to our koma or cozy cubicle of 4 ½ tatami mats before one of them had managed to put his finger through a shoji paper window panel- oops! “That’char’s just like a fresh jar of Tang!” The hostess smiled and said such punctures were a common occurrence, just not generally by people over eight years old.

T Rat said “Ah tell you whuut . . . this here place would make a mighty fine smoke house back home!” She took their incredulity as a queue to offer some Japanese history and interpretation in welcoming them to a tea house tradition dating back to Kyoto in 1489, just three years prior to Columbus touching new world shores. This may have been a way to calm and contain an exuberant 1000 lbs of vacationing southerners; literally a bull’s worth of biomass in a delicate tea shop. We learned that the way of tea and shared meals here were in a place of peace and meditation but they may have heard “Piece and medication”.

Jo Jo added “Ah’m, sorry maam, but ya gotta realize, yoah fureign doin’s an talkin’ is a little funny to us” then asked her with genuine curiosity “Where you from little lady?” She politely answered “Foreign is such a difficult word; I was born in Red Deer, Alberta. Where is your home?” It slowly dawned on American Jo Jo just who was the foreigner.

Sunken seating allows charcoal heaters to warm feet in cold weather

When we got to our small private room, they looked around sort of befuddled- “Ain’t no chairs. Just a big ole’ hole’n the floor with a fancy card table in tha middle! Jaesus Christ! Ain’t that sump’in!”. They joked that we must have collapsed the floor trusses but I demonstrated how one slithered in to sit at floor level and arranged the Japanese pillows behind me. They had to slap some backs and make some “Git-DOWN TONIGHT” jokes about butt cracks and no chairs before they too wallowed in. So far, so good.

How do I say this delicately . . . Southerners trend large. We come by it naturally as we hail from the holy shrines of Cracker Barrel, Stucky’s, Howard Johnsons and various Drive-through Daiquiri shops. We know our way around a pecan log and can distinguish ourselves at any big-assed fish fry. Odd we aren’t bigger in fact. I am NOT saying we are fat but we do float very high in the water. A crowd this good at eating and once stoned, start getting whipped up for chow a little in advance. We could have taught Pavlov a thing or two about anticipation, though might have barbequed those dogs instead of studying them.

The menu listed a series of remarkable dishes, including, one group fare that was served in a table-length wooden boat with quite a variety of Japan’s signature cusine: Unigani, Calamari, Sashimi, Hitsumabushi, Tempura, Udon . . . I thought for a range of festive selections, this would be the way to go. It also minimized the menu discussions. Already our hostess was puzzling out “Whacha gotta do ta getta shot ‘a sweet tea round heah?” and I could only imagine the blank southern faces and “Hunhs?” at the Japanese dish names read out by the hostess. Far better I just order the boat load selection for all to share. I still worried about food volume for my guests so I ordered Miso and green tea starters to take the edge off.

Another thing about large southern men in a festive spirit — they get loud and talk over each other. This was terribly out of place in a formal sedate tea house but there was no putting these genies back in their bottle. Thankfully there was only one other party present and they already had their food. I noticed their chop sticks were flying in their haste to depart as they overheard every comment at our table.

“I betcha I could swang that’cher sword on the wall and cut my way outta here if a far broke out!”

“This little sunk down seat is kinda like a Pecan Island duck blind!”

“You check fer a nutria in tha bottom afore settin’ down? Fine eatin’, them.”

“Whazzat little ole flower doin all by its lonesome on tha little stage?”

“I’m a cravin’ some mouth fuel!- Hongry enuff to eat a whole dam samon myseff!”

“Them Japaneeze make any thang to drank? Mebbe a beer or sumpin?”

A meal course all to itself. Japanese beer is excellent.

Indeed. They were not bashful about trying a couple of the Japanese beers on offer; Sapporo and Kirin leading the charge. T Rat kept confusing Chinese and Japanese beer and trying to “Shine his ass” with his cultural literacy by asking for a “Tsing-tao” beer. His pronunciation yielded a respectable imitation of a .22 hollow point ricocheting off a car hood. The server simply shook her head “Not here” without mentioning the bloody centuries of warring Japanese- Chinese relations.

It was clear the boys were getting comfortable with the surroundings as the beer hit their empty bellies. The waitress offered that they did indeed have a very fine Japanese blended bourbon called Legent on hand too. Noooo!!! . . . we don’t mix nitro with glycerin inside. Mardi Gras not play well inside a tea house. A few hard liquor shots on an empty stomach and the Koi in the garden pond would not be safe.

The way of tea

I knew it out of sequence but I asked if she might do a green tea preparation process for us. She agreed as a distraction was needed. She carefully mixed the matcha and poured cups for everyone to baleful silence.

More caffine and culture than black coffee.

Meaty paws reached tentatively for the diminutive cups but nobody would take the first sip. “Well?” I queried. Silence . . . Finally Jo Jo summed up the problem(s) “Cup ain’t got no handle; seems like the tea bag busted open cause ah gotta buncha green powder mixed in mine; so green its nuculear skeery; and where’s tha’ sugar?” They sipped tentatively saying “Tastes kinda like hay”. When I told them they were shooters, all greenness disappeared in a gulp.

“Waitress — another round of Pit-Sinnnnggga! [with shooting motion] if ya would please!” She looked at me with amusement and asked “Miso? You sure?” Yep, bring it on! Tea, beer, miso. In for a lamb, in for a sheep! The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach but I was steering them toward kidney failure.

By now, the waitress was enjoying the challenge and had enlisted help for beers and the miso service. Little O was first to try the miso — “Da hell! Tain’t bad, tastes like Grand Isle tapwater! Rat was obsessing over the spoon “Shore don’t fit no American mouth!” Fox wasn’t sold; “Sho is a lotta water in this here soup and what tha hell is this little cheese cubie floatin’ round?”

A dilemma had arisen. This was certainly not a tofu crowd. Tofu was a thing to be derided as “Et by a Prius driver wearing yoga pants with his hair all up in a man bun ”. T-Rat’s bumper sticker came to mind “If God didn’t want us to eat cows, why’d he make em’ out of meat?”

They all gamely tried the miso and in a fit of open-mindedness, agreed that with enough hot sauce it might be edible. I assured them any more tofu would be crispy fried. Little O said “ Waaaall that’s kinda like lipstick on a pig, ah mean itsa bean sprout fer crissake!”

Their furious intake rate of Japanese beer was mildly concerning too. Impressive both in volume and price at $9 apiece. Oh well, can’t stop them now. They all knew what chop sticks were but it was unclear if they had ever tried them. When the polished black pairs of sticks arrived in linen napkins, two of the boys performed gleeful drum solos pinging off miso cups and piziinging the beer bottles. The other patrons stood nervously to leave. I just shrugged at them and they smiled and bowed fearfully as they went to fetch shoes and coats.

The boat of exotic foods was starting to take on the spectre of a lost pirate ship drifting into harbor and when it finally arrived, it was burgeoning. It was 30 cm wide with three layers of sushi, squid, condiments, an intact fried fish, thinly sliced beef and quite a few things I couldn’t identify. Purple pansies fore and aft mimicked lotus flowers in this impressive presentation. Fox was first out of the chute “Dayaum! This thang’s long as a pirogue and plum FULLa food!”

Fried fish — universal food

Yet, nobody touched anything. We had a chopstick conundrum. They couldn’t quite hold the damned things and soon enough, resorted to scooping some sashimi, spearing some sushi, and two-hand tweezering the unagani. They figured out the carmelized sauce on the barbequed fish was delicious and sorta familiar but I couldn’t resist telling them it was eel and unless cooked well, was poisonous. They turned their attention to the whole fried tilapia. Jo Jo whipped out his pocket machete and expertly filleted the carcass while Fox nibbled the crispy fried tail and fins.

Then the obvious had to be said about the sashimi — “Ummm, Lee . . . did you know this here fish is RAW! They plum fergot to fry it.” T-Rat held a crispy curled squid rosette aloft “We got us some first rate Snapper bait rat-cher!” But fried is fried and he nodded it to be good. I winced to see them tearing the sushi open to see what was in the middle as if it were a Thanksgiving turkey. “Rice is damned sticky and whuts them little orange bb things?” Tobiko, but I failed to tell him it was flying fish roe, fudging “That’s caviar. Flown in”.

The heat of hell

Then before I could elaborate, a bad thing happened. Jo Jo took a heaping tablespoon of avocado and popped it in, however, the avocado was actually Wasabi. I had even warned him it was spicy but he has a tough pallet for conventional hot sauces. His reaction was profound as both knees hit the underside of the table and his neck extended like an egret with a too-large fish. “FFF FFFFuuu FFFFuuuuuKK! Dat’s hhhhooott! His knees were still banging the bottom of the table as he tried to jump up and run around some like a headless chicken but the pit held him fast. This of course produced howls of slightly nervous laughter.

As wasabi does though, it passed quickly and he recomposed himself claiming “Wuddn’t that hot man . . try a fork full Little O!” Slightly drunk southerners don’t dare lightly with an audience of peers, so with nary a pause, Little O bravely reached over and forked in a thumb-sized gob of the green condiment, chased it with a swig of beer and looked straight ahead. Jo Jo’s eyes widened in anticipation like staring at a dud cherry bomb. We all sat back but nothing happened. I saw Little O’s breathing stop, his eyes spurt tears and with a low pressurized hiss he sprayed a beer/wasabi mixture square into Fox’s face. “God dam, Goddam! GODDAMM! . . . Ah’m blind!” and like a tarpon he slither-jumped to his feet, put his hand through another paper window panel and walked in small circles in the waiting area gasping and clawing at his eyes. Having paid their bill, the Japanese family in the opposite portico bolted through the door and trotted to their car thinking him in pursuit. I was a little worried about him but he came back shortly to begin eating again. “Liked to make me bite the back a mah own neck! Puts a hurtin’ on ya but shor don’t last fer much”.

The boys ate their way neatly around the sashimi and wasabi, scarfed the Kobi beef, nibbled the rice, wolfed down the crispy fish and squid, dissected the sushi like so many crows, and with another round of beers, seemed satisfied.

The waitress, smiling but with the devil in her eyes, returned with a first shot gift from the house — a delicate tokkuri flask of sake that she gently warmed in a water bath before pouring a measure into the tiny guinomi cups.

She sensually swirled the sake before pouring and the boys watched, mesmerized, as if she was handling a serpent. I sensed she actually getting into it with these highly appreciative but unusual customers. Possibly some cross-cultural sexual tension? Oh my God! No! They can’t understand each other, how are they going to flirt, she would’t be able to even get into their pickup trucks wearing that tight kimono!

The next rounds of sake was improving their linguistic skills by the shooter ($7.50 per shot but who’s counting) — and the server was nobody’s fool. Finally, they just HAD to try the Japanese bourbon, a Jim Beam blended by a master Japanese whiskey connoisseur.

A very good or a very bad idea

I figured ending with something familiar that bridged the Southern and Japanese gulf might put a nice bow on the evening so we could slink out with a shred of dignity. Bad call. The sake was interesting but they cottoned to that Japanese bourbon. A lot. Shots were something they could relate to so they cut to the chase and bought the whole bottle of bourbon in the most expensive way possible, by the glass, neat. Thank god there were five of us!

Just then Little O, ever the 6’5 gentleman asked to see the manager. Our server said three words “That is me”. He said “Oh good darlin’! This here was the best damned Japneeze supper we ever done et! Would you take a little drinky poo with us an teach us all a fine ole Japaneeeze toast?” She looked around carefully for co-workers, closed the partition, said “Top secret, OK?” then held a toast aloft saying “Kanpai!” they responded “Nope, Lee is gonna pay!” Then she slowly repeated “Kan-a-pai! . . . toast!” and they fell out yelping various retorts “Campy, Canopy, Yeah, I can pee too!!” We got a good group selfie and promised we would never show it to anyone anywhere. As she left, I saw Jo Jo fumbling as he tried to send the picture to his golf group. I trusted the pot, beer, saki, and bourbon to prevent transmission, though the caption would have been interesting.

These carry great weight in Canada

With some trepidation, I finally requested the bill as this was my treat and maybe I sucked my teeth at the $434 tab, I might have gulped a little bit or maybe it was the sweat rings under my armpits. . . but magically, four crisp $US 100 bills appeared on the table and nobody wanted change which basically meant a $120 tip in Canadian funds. Our hostess bowed, smiled and made her exit with the slightest of wiggle to her kimono and an over-the-shoulder smile that was pure Geisha. She probably didn’t hear Fox rudely mutter “I’d hit that!” but she certainly caught the hollow whump of T Rat’s chivalrous palm in his chest. Christ. . . not a drunken titty bar fight! They couldn’t have gotten out of the sunken seats though. Laughs all around then instantly everyone was enjoying themselves again.

The table extraction process wasn’t pretty as we unfolded from the pit in various tumbling moves. T Rat and Jo Jo had to get a picture holding up the sushi boat while I peered under the table to see if we had left anyone.

Jo Jo and Little O leaned on each other all the way out throwing glances at the warrior entrance that said “No way man!” They all agreed “Best damned furrein frish fry evah!” Fox wanted to go ask the owner for a date for later but there would be no later since they were heading for bed shortly. I tucked a half pound of untouched salmon sashimi under my arm and thought about ways to cook it at home so they might eat it. There were several slurred “Saya nora Senorita and See ya sayanora sista!” Our hostess bowed and said something like “Ki wo tsukete”, meaning “Be careful”.

Maybe everyone got a little culture that night and we did indeed have fireworks, but next time, I am bringing a katana to keep order

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Lee Foote

Southerner by birth, Northerner by choice, Casual person by nature.