An amazing Japanese dinner experience
Best things often happen unexpectedly. Like this evening, which is a perfect example. After my extensive sightseeing trip to Himeji castle and the Koko-en gardens I expected a rather quiet evening in the sedate town of Himeji and was thinking about what I would like for dinner, when I was surprised by a very appreciable turn of events.
An unexpected invitation
At my return to the Kimono shop after my sightseeing trip in Himeji, Hikaru informs me about an event on that particular evening, which would illuminate Himeji-jo in blue colour. She says that would only take place few times a year and asks me whether I wanted to go together with her, her husband and tonight’s only other guest of her guesthouse, and have a look at that. For sure, I’m in, sounds great! “Alright, then we meet at 7 o’clock down here in the shop!”
The waiting time of one and a half hours until seven I spend relaxing in my room doing things people nowadays usually do: Facebook, E-Mails, Instagram – sad modern reality. Finally the clock turns seven and downstairs in front of her shop Hikaru awaits me with a male version of a Kimono that I shall put on for our walk. Here I also meet Jay – at least that is his English name – the other guest of Hikaru tonight. A young Chinese student from Guangzhou on a two-weeks trip through Japan.
Alcohol supply secured, food supply questionable
Together with Hikaru’s husband the four of us leave for the ten-minutes-walk to Himeji castle. At the first supermarket on our way, however, we have to stop shortly, so that Hikaru’s husband can get our group small 0.5-liter bottles of sake, the famous Japanese alcoholic beverage. Sake will be quite helpful, since the sun that was so comfortably warming during daytime has already set and it is still quite chilly during nighttime in Japan’s spring.
Staggered I realize that most of the restaurants I had passed earlier on that day were already closed. “Is it normal that restaurants here are already closed by 7pm?”, I ask Hikaru. She explains that most tourists just come to Himeji for a daytrip, but stay in a hotel in Kyoto, Osaka or Kobe. That’s why the majority of restaurants would already close at 6pm after sunset and after the tourists have left. As I haven’t eaten anything yet, this might create a problem, I fear. Actually, I feel very hungry already…
The solution to my problem
The view at the castle during nighttime is nice, but not extraordinarily spectacular. Our sake, however, is extraordinarily strong and half a liter on an empty stomach is showing some immediate effects. We take a few pictures and are having a good time, when suddenly Hikaru comes up with a suggestion which I really appreciate: “I’m hungry, let’s have something to eat!”, she exclaims in her (for Japanese standards) remarkably good English.
So, she leads the way and guides us to one of the few places that are still well-lit in the otherwise sleepy Himeji night. In the middle of the maze of shopping passages we find the restaurant “Kanbei” in Miyuki Street.
This eatery is quite small, there are only two tables inside. On one of them there is the barbecue plate (teppan), behind which the owner and chef is standing, preparing the famous specialty dish of the Kansai region, Okonomiyaki. At the second table, there are three other guests who already enjoy these aromatic Japanese “pancakes”. Pancakes, however, is a little bit misleading, because they are not sweet, but savoury instead, filled with either bacon, pork belly, beef, prawns or squid, depending on your preferences.
Rustic flair, perfect processes
This eatery reminds of a corner pub, rustic and quaint. Smoking is still allowed inside, but that does no harm to the experience, even for a non-smoker like me. Of course, there’s a TV in the far corner running at high volume which the other guests look at while we take our seats directly in front of the chef. He takes our orders and starts preparing our Okonomiyaki which translates to “cooked as you like”. Firstly, the approximately 70-year old patron with a red-and-white patterned bandana pours a circle of batter onto the barbecue plate, then he puts cabbage, soy bean sprouts and bacon on top. Like this, he leaves the sizzling Okonomiyaki for a while and begins to joke around with Hikaru’s husband. He doesn’t seem to know any English, but all of a sudden he quotes a song of a Japanese comedian. It relates to pens, apples and pineapples. The others burst out laughing. I, however, don’t know what is so funny. Apparently, this song is very popular in Japan… I take a note and will consult YouTube later for enlightenment 😊
A younger woman with stylish glasses comes down a narrow flight of steps in the corner of the room. I suppose it’s the owner’s daughter who joins us, handing everyone of us a beer. Asahi, Sakura (cherry blossom) edition. That’s how I like it. Now, the chef sounds the bell for the next stage of Okonomiyaki production. He turns the pancakes around and has them sizzling for a little longer, while he spreads some gravy sauce which he describes as “spicy-sweet” on the already fried side. Finally, he decorates his culinary artwork with a grid of mayonnaise and seasons it with pepper, before handing out Okonomiyaki halves to each one of us. Hikaru, however, doesn’t witness this final stage as she had received a call from a customer and has left for the Kimono shop without eating anything. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back”, she said when she left and all of us laughed. “Like in the movie!”, I say and the chef replies: “Terminator!”
Okonomiyaki and beer – a delightful combination
Though there are also chopsticks in front of us, the traditional way to eat Okonomiyaki, as Hikaru’s husband tells us, is to eat them directly from the small spatula, called kote, which the owner hands out to us. Due to the fact that the Okonomiyaki are served directly from the grill and the kote is made out of metal, this can be a little bit dangerous for the roof of the mouth and you might burn your palate easily. So better be careful! On the other hand, I find it hard to contain myself as I am so hungry and the smell of the okonomiyaki is so alluring. The taste lives up to what the smell promised and I hoover up my portion quickly.
Luckily, a second round is being ordered, this time with beef dices and onions. We are just chinking with the next round bottles of beer when Hikaru returns and finally has her dinner started, too. She tells me that she had studied in Paris for a while where she learned French and English and that she had also been to Hamburg once. The second Okonomiyaki is even better than the first one. To wrap up the experience, Hikaru orders some fried udon noodles from the grill for everyone, as well as another beer for dessert. We are enjoying ourselves a lot and I learn another very important Japanese word: oishii – delicious!
At last, we totter fully replete and half-drunk out of the restaurant. Hikaru’s husband took the bill and paid 1,600 Yen for all of us – a joke compared to the prices that the other tourist traps in Himeji ask from the customers. Back at the Kimono shop, I collapse satisfied into my bed and while falling asleep I think about the statement from the beginning and the truth that lies within: Best things often REALLY do happen unexpectedly!
What stories can you tell about good things that happened unexpectedly to you while travelling? What is your favourite Japanese food? Please share your experiences with me and other fellow readers, I’m very curious what you will report.
PS: The mentioned video of the song “PPAP” by Pikotaro can be found here. It is indeed ridiculously funny, proven by meanwhile more than 90 million views (!!!) on YouTube…