Thursday, July 8, 2010

Tanabata and Charcoal Grill Anko


Today we went out to celebrate my host dad’s birthday, even though it’s still two days away. I’ve been forever bugging them in the most roundabout ways that I know how, to escort me to a little restaurant about 5 buildings down called ‘Charcoal Grill Anko,’ and tonight, we finally went.

My affection for the place began months upon months ago, just around the time when the brisk winds of autumn became the chilling torrents of winter. Back in those days I would often walk all the way down to Sangenjaya on foot, or if not that far, then the large grocery aways down the street, and since my walks would often happen under the cover of darkness, my return journeys always took me past the curiously enthralling, often bustling Charcoal Grill Anko. I can’t say what it is about the place that cast a spell on me, but just the overall aura of it was intoxicating. As I would walk in and out of the shadows of buildings at night on my way back home, the smallish wooden sliding door that is the entrance, with small, plate-sized square windows just large enough to let you peer in to see the men inside, working behind massive, hot grills, their hair pulled back in bandanas, their close a mysterious and alluring black as they serve people at the bar beer and dinner, drew me in. The place itself seemed to glow invitingly, a warm, honey-colored glow that washes comfort over you in a world of florescence. Beside a Dominoes pizza and an out of use shop, this restaurant, above all others, seemed to offer a different side of Tokyo, a side I wanted desperately to see but never have (and was too timid to brave on my own). And so, I would always, on my walks, slow down, sometimes stopping at the door, and watch the young men cooking inside and it would make me happy and I would smile, and then I would glance up at the massive, torso-sized lanterns bearing the shop’s name that hang on either side of the door, and proceed on my way.

Flash forward about eight or so months and I finally make the not-so-subtle hint that I want to go, that finally hit’s the target and me, my host dad, my host mom and the grandma all walk the two minutes or less down the street and for the first time ever, we enter the shop. Now, situated next to the bar dining is an outside, triangular-shaped, raised wooden porch that they put in about five months ago. As we enter the restaurant, we’re greeted by a chorus of ‘Irasshaimase’ (welcome), and the manager and the other young cook look up briefly at our entrance, but are quick to return their attention to the food on the grill before them. We are offered a table upstairs, but because the grandma has a hard time with stairs, we’re ushered out onto the porch instead where there are three tables waiting and empty. And I got a flash of what I’ve idealized as the ‘salary man’s eating joint.’ Instead of stools or chairs at the small tables, there are red and blue plastic crates (like people ship crates of beer or milk bottles in) which are covered with colorfully designed cushions. Beyond, out facing the street and the passersby is a glass display case like you might see at a butchers, and in it are displayed all the fresh foods ready to be cooked up (corn, meat, eggplant and other veggies). On the wall nearest me is an old 30s or 40s vintage poster of a women in a kimono advertising Yebisu Beer, and then a yellow fabric banner offering beer and another fabric banner often seen this time of year. This second banner is white on the top, blue on the bottom and in the middle, in bright red, is splashed the kanji for ice. This is an advertisement for shaved ice, the treat of choice in this oppressive, almost sadistically humid and miserable weather we’re having.

Against the far wall are blackboards whereon are written the specials in white and neon green marker, and this wall is made of wooden slats, and in these slats are stuck, just a few, colorfully decorated handheld fans (decorated with fireworks, koi, etc.). In the far corner, which isn’t that far at all, is a charcoal grill (as opposed to the grill inside which is more like a hibachi grill), and from time to time a guy in a traditional-looking shirt encircled by red carp, would come through with fish skewered through, or vegetables, and would place them on the grill, the fish’s dead eyes looking at the world upside down as he is placed over the charcoal. And there also stands a very thin bamboo tree which was decorated with colorful slips of construction paper for the currently running Tanabata festival.

Tanabata, written ‘seventh night,’ is a festival falling on July 7th (aka 7/7) every year, though its decorations are around for much longer. The history of this festival is as follows. Once upon a time, high, high in the heavens there was a beautiful princess who was so skilled at creating fine woven masterpieces that she was called Orihime (Weaving Princess). Her father was Tentei, ruler of the universe and he took great joy and pride in his daughter and her magnificent works of art. But, over time, Orihime grew lonely, for so busy was she with her weaving that she scarce had time to seek for someone to love, and seeing his daughter’s sorrow, Tentei introduced her to Hikoboshi, who herded cows up in the star fields. When the two met, they fell instantly in love and married soon after, but so preoccupied was Orihime with her new husband, that she stopped weaving, and Hikoboshi, for his part, neglected his herds and thus they wandered all over the heavens. At this, Tentei grew very angry and divided the two by the river Amanogawa (The Milky Way). Heartbroken at being wrenched from her lover’s side, Orihime fell upon her father and wept, begging for mercy and so Tentei decreed that, if Orihime worked hard the year round at her weaving, he would let the lovers meet on the seventh day of the seventh month every year. And so, to celebrate this reunion, the Japanese write wishes on colored paper and create paper chains and tie them on bamboo, some even floating them down rivers on small boats.

Now that you’ve got your history lesson for the day, let us proceed.

So, in honor of Tanabata, the restaurant had drinks for $2 on 7/5-7/7 and we made it just in time. As has somehow become my custom, I ordered soju (a type of rice or potato alcohol) cut with water, and my host mother started ordering a list of dishes off the menu for everyone to share. I don’t know if it is my host family alone, or if it is a common Japanese custom, but it seems that whenever we go out to eat, rather than each person ordering a dish for themselves, my host parents order about six or seven dishes and everyone shares, which is rather nice, I think as its more social and you get to try everything. To eat we had a shrimp and vegetable dish in a sort of sweet miso/soy sauce, cold potato salad with a hint of curry powder in it, squid and daikon (Japanese radish) cold in a sauce, pepper steak that fell off the bone it was so tender, grilled vegetables rapped in a thin bacon, thinner than American bacon and grilled on the grill (okra, zucchini, tomato and mushrooms), and all kinds of different yakitori (grilled chicken kabobs, sort of). And the one dish I did try (was coerced into trying) though I should have taken a hint from my host dad who just sat by and watched, was cold, raw chicken liver. Not a fan. Not. A. Fan. I somehow managed to get it down, but it took the rest of my soju to wash out the taste. Then there was a minced chicken sausage on a stick dipped in a raw egg and soy sauce (Japanese people eat raw eggs A LOT) and then rice which was served in a peculiar way. I suppose it was a more traditional way of serving it, but instead of a dish being brought out, we were given a wooden tray. On the tray was a dish of cold water which the rice serving spoon sat in (rice is sticky, so the water is to keep the server from sticking) and then there was a wooden, circular steaming box topped with a metal thing, which you open to reveal steamed sticky rice and vegetables.

Minus the raw liver (my own mistake), this was by far and away the best food I’ve had in the 10 months I’ve been here, and that’s up against some pretty tough competition. The chicken, in all its various forms, was so flavorful and tender and wonderful. And the ambience of the place was just an added bonus. Our waitress was dressed in a Yukata (a lighter, informal summer kimono), with a fan stuck in her sash/belt, and at one point, the manager came in carrying a spiral of incense (that serves as mosquito repellant) in a watermelon shaped hanging pot, to which my host dad replied, ‘Oh, that takes me back.’

So, though it was just going out to eat, something I’ve done several times now, this outing was more fun that I’ve had in quite a while. If you’re ever in the area, I highly advocate going to ‘Charcoal Grill Anko.’

These pictures here are of a bridge near my school which was built around a Tanabata theme with Orihime on one side (of the highway), her lover on the other, and the rest of the bridge is decorated with the various constellations cut into the concrete of the bridge.

PS - You may have noticed, but the layout is back to the one I had at the beginning. I figured it might be nice to finish how I started ; )

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