It was a season of long days, heavy rain, loquats, hollyhocks and hydrangea.
He was not hungry for loquats, and an afternoon downpour had cooled the June air. So, thinking of the unlimited, free miso shiru (miso soup) and green tea, he ducked into his favorite kaiten zushiya (rotary sushi bar).
“Irasshaimase!” The typical greeting — meaning “Welcome!” — from the staff in the shop. That full-throated chorus had made him nervous when he first came to Japan. Workers at convenience stores, fast-food joints, coffee shops — always they’d shout “Irasshaimase!” together whenever you walked in the door. It always felt rather embarrassing. Then they’d follow it with an equally forceful (if tutored) “Arigato gozaimasu! (Thank you very much!)” when you left.
He just wanted to come and go in peace, often not even buying anything if he couldn’t find something he knew and liked and recognized.
Often, things that looked appealing, brightly colored and brilliantly textured, tasted strange or bland or too sweet or salty or downright weird. So he began to stick with the few snacks, sandwiches and drinks he could trust. But sushi was another matter entirely.
He had been a fisherman for 20 years back in Canada. Consequently, though his Japanese vocabulary was not wide-ranging, his “fish vocabulary” was quite extensive, especially for a gaijin (foreigner). “You learn best what interests you most,” he figured.
So, having found himself a perch on the red plastic seat of a stool anchored at the counter, he first dove into the hand-towel box, broke open the clear plastic wrapper (with a “pop”) and wiped his face and hands. Well, at 55 he was old enough — an oyaji (middle-aged man) — to get away with uncoolly wiping his face. Proper etiquette restricted the use of the oshibori to the hands. Yeah, getting old had to have some compensations.
As it was the afternoon, the big stainless-steel cauldron of miso shiru was still brimming with the black-eyed heads of big prawns and dark-green strips of wakame seaweed. Had it been lunchtime, or a weekend, such free treats would have long disappeared.
Where he’d seated himself was far enough away from the door to avoid elemental wafts caused by customers leaving or entering, and with a good view of the sushi chef he was also well-placed to watch what he was doing. Yes, his fish vocabulary and pronunciation were good, but his everyday Japanese was too poor to deal with an unexpected situation, so he wanted to see how busy and what chore the chef was doing before calling out his order. Since most Japanese don’t expect foreigners to speak their language well, or at all, they often fail to understand even simple requests made in grammatically correct and perfectly accented Japanese. He wanted, at all costs, to avoid the embarrassment of not being understood,
He had his own routine with the miso shiru. He liked it about halfway through the meal, especially with cooked fish like anago or unagi (grilled eels). So he lifted a cup and two small saucers off the conveyor belt, took a tea bag out of the plastic receptacle on the counter, dropped it into the cup and filled it with hot water from the dispenser. Then, he snapped apart a pair of disposable wooden chopsticks (waribashi) and, using the back ends of the hashi, lifted the teabag out of the cup and placed it in one of the saucers. Into the other saucer he poured soy sauce.
He took a sip of green tea and called out his order: “Sumimasen! Saba! Saamon!’‘
He always liked to begin with pickled mackerel (saba), because it reminded him of the pickled herring that was always his favorite appetizer at the shabbos dinners in his childhood, after the wine and challah, the ceremonial breads ritually tasted after a short Hebrew prayer: Baruch atah Adonai . . . boray p’ree hagoffin . . . boray p’ree ha-adomah. (Blessed be our God . . . who gives us the fruit of the vine . . . who gives us the fruit of the earth.) It was funny how he still remembered those prayers.
Shabbos dinners were on Friday evenings, after a week of school and before leaving for the Friday-night Sabbath service at the synagogue or shul. The main course was always roast chicken — he could never remember anything else — and the appetizers were always pickled herring or gefilte fish (cold fishballs made from freshwater fish like whitefish or pike) served with horseradish, white or colored red, not green like the Japanese wasabi that always accompanies raw fish on sushi. Funny how such different people as Jews and Japanese both liked horseradish with fish.
So just as he always chose pickled herring to begin the shabbos dinner, he always ordered saba first at the sushi bar. But while pickled herring was served in a brine with slices of onion and big round seeds of allspice, and had a rather mushy consistency, saba was rich, oily, buttery in texture, and the blue bars on the silver skin (“mackerel skies and mares’ tails / make tall ships carry short sails”), the dark inner meat set off against the pale muscle — and all laid on a bed of pearl-white rice with an emerald of wasabi peeking out from between the fish and the rice — was as much a treat to the eyes as to the palate.
And as always with the saba, his favorite follow-up was salmon (“saamon” as the locals referred to it). The dark, orange-red slices vividly recalled memories of his American-Jewish childhood, the Sunday-morning breakfast lox, which his father bought at the kosher deli, always a quarter-pound for the four of them — an ounce apiece — to eat on a poppy-seed bagel spread with Philadelphia cream cheese. His memories, too, drew on the years he spent working in commercial salmon fisheries along the Pacific coast, from northern California to Vancouver Island in Canada. It was an environment in which Jews were as rare as green sea turtles.
But a few Jews or not, salmon didn’t come by the ounce in those days. Rather, there’d be huge specimens aplenty, stuffed with cannabis leaves that cooked up like psychedelic spinach after hours inside the big fish, baking for a big summer party in a Hawaiian-style imu (pit-oven) dug on the beach in front of his Vancouver Island cabin overlooking Georgia Strait.
That was way back in — well, must have been 1986 or ’87. They were kinda the good ol’ days in a way, with plenty of fish in the straits, clams on the beaches and homegrown in the garden camouflaged by sweet corn, red runner beans and pumpkin vines. That was before the big bottom-dragging trawlers scraped up the spawning cod; before the immigrant boat people, laid-off loggers and other clam-diggers cleaned out the beaches; before the real-estate speculators jacked up the land prices and wiped out cheap rents; before the hydroponic growers attracted police informers and made camouflage cultivation a far more high-risk service.
But hey, that beach party was a helluva good time; never tasted salmon so good before or since.
As always, as he sat there on his red-plastic perch, he tasted the pickled saba first, and after eating the first piece — there were always two pieces on a plate — he layered the empty space on the plate with gari (thin slices of pickled ginger) used to refresh the palate between different sushis. It, too, was free, and freely available from lacquered boxes on the counter right next to the green-tea containers.
Using his hashi, he ate some gari. Then, after a sip of green tea, he reached for a piece of salmon, dipped it lightly in soy sauce, and first appreciating the orange, green and white of the fish, wasabi and rice, he brought it to his lips and took his first bite.
Salmon, like the inscrutable force that returned them to the rivers of their birth to spawn there and die, always transported him back to the deck of a troller way up in the North Pacific Ocean, usually in an orange-gray pre-dawn light, with a half-filled mug of coffee in his hand, setting out the first lines of the day. Back then the boat would be moving slowly on its course, its Iron Mike auto-steering system alive to the vagaries of wind, wave and current — just as now, he himself was attempting to adjust to the vagaries of age, events and circumstance.
He finished the first piece of salmon, sipped on his tea, ate some gari and took up a second piece of saba. Being pickled, it was flavorful enough not to require soy sauce, the ubiquitous Japanese condiment. He had come to really exalt in the taste and texture of this fish in Japan. Back in America it was a cheap canned fish that he never ate. But he remembered Jewish boys in his school days referring to the neighborhood Catholics as “mackerel snappers.” Yeah, there’d been a lot of name-calling between the Catholics and Jews: “mackerel snapper,” “matzoh ball,” “Christer,” “Christ-killer,” “greaser,” “kike.” It sure got nasty at times.
He often wondered if Catholics really believed the medieval European urban myth that Jews used the blood of Christian boys to make Passover matzohs. So much suffering and tragedy, so many needless deaths as a result.
Well, the Jewish urban myths about Catholics in mid-20th-century America revolved around food too, but were a helluva lot less bloody. Jews believed that Catholics all used “Miracle Whip,” an imitation mayonnaise “salad dressing,” whereas Jews all used real mayonnaise, which was richer, tastier and more expensive (it contained less sugar and more whole eggs). The Jewish conception of a Catholic sandwich was baloney with Miracle Whip and French’s mustard on Wonder Bread; while the Jewish sandwich was corned beef or pastrami with Gulden’s hot mustard and Hellman’s Real Mayonnaise on rye.
Then, on Fridays, the Catholics opened a can of mackerel, mixed it with Miracle Whip and spread it between their slices of Wonder Bread. If Jews opened a can of fish, it was Bumble Bee or Chicken of the Sea brand white-meat albacore tuna, packed in soybean oil, mixed with chopped onions and real mayonnaise and layered onto hand-cut slices of dark pumpernickel from the kosher bakery (with a dill pickle on the side). Anyway, such were the urban myths.
Entirely oblivious to such murderous European histories past, behind the bar the sushi chef, twisted white towel wrapped tightly around his head of closely cropped gray hair, was cleaning his long, thin knife. It flashed a cold, gray silver in the glint of the overhead lights.
Across the counter, after relishing the second piece of saamon, drinking some more agari and savoring another slice of gari, he called for maguro (tuna) and karei (sole). At least he thought karei was sole. Then again, maybe it was flounder. Despite his many years of fishing, he was never sure. He knew that they were both flatfish, brown on top, white underneath, and that one had both eyes on the left side of its head and the other had both eyes on the right. But he honestly didn’t know which was which.
He knew that flounder were important in European mythology; that the 1999 Nobel Prize-winning German novelist Gunter Grass had written a novel titled (in English) “The Flounder,” and that the magical fish caught by the poor fisherman in the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale “The Fisherman’s Wife” was a flounder:
“Flounder, flounder in the sea . . . “
He remembered, as well, fishing for flounder in Long Island Sound as a boy, first with his father and his uncle, who owned a lobster boat, and later, as a teenager, alone at the end of the breakwater, smoking an illicit cigarette, lost in the perilous thoughts and aspirations of adolescence, occasionally catching a flounder, or even two at a time on his twin-hooked bottom-rig baited with sand worms in the way his uncle had taught him. But he still couldn’t remember which side of its head a flounder’s eyes were on — or a sole’s.
Sometimes the sushi shop had hirame, which sold for six times the price of karei and was sometimes translated as “flounder,” but sometimes as “halibut,” although his dictionary told him that “halibut” in Japanese was ohyo.
On the west coast of Canada he had seldom caught either flounder or sole, and then only as incidentals to another target fishery. On the east side of Vancouver Island he sometimes caught small sole while jigging the bottom for red snappers, and on the west side, the Pacific Ocean side, he occasionally caught large starry flounder, magnificent eating fish, while trolling along the rock piles for spring-running salmon.
Halibut were another story. He had never paid out for the expensive license to catch them commercially, but they did, at times, flop onto the deck of his boat. They’d sometimes take the big bait rigged on the lines weighted deep for spring salmon or ling cod. They’d sometimes swim, too, into the black cod traps down 400 fathoms on the Alaska border, baited with frozen herring whose eggs had been exported to Japan to make the traditional New Year delicacy called kazunoko. It was a specialist trade that had made legendary fortunes for some lucky Canadian herring-roe fishermen who’d managed to position their nets in a so-called million-dollar set.
The biggest halibut were called “soakers” or “whales,” and they weighed as much as sumo wrestlers. The smaller ones, averaging about 25 kilos, were called “chickens.”
As the chef feigned indifference, but observed obliquely with a near-paternal eye, the karei and maguro came around on the belt. Since they were inexpensive fish, they came on light-blue patterned plates. The prices of everything were indicated by the colors of the plates, moving up from red to green to dark blue to black. The karei was white, lean and a bit chewy, hard to bite in two, so he usually ate it in one bite and chewed it for a long time, savoring the delicate flavor sparked with the green fire of the wasabi.
Next, a taste of gari, a sip of agari, and then a bit of the blood-red tuna, maguro. The tuna favored by sushi shops in Japan is of the blue-fin variety — big fish, often as big or even bigger than halibut “whales.” He liked the reasonably priced maguro, although many Japanese preferred the fattier, pinker and more expensive cuts, o-toro, chu-toro and bin-toro, taken from the belly of the beast rather than its flanks.
He’d never caught a blue-fin, nor fished for them, although he’d once spent a season in Hawaii fishing for yellow-fin tuna (ahi as Hawaiians call the blue-fin’s smaller cousin), and many seasons off the west coast of Vancouver Island fishing for albacore, the small, bullet-shaped white-meat tuna (called shiro-maguro) that is rare in Japan but beloved of California sushi bars and a staple of Oregon canneries like Bumble Bee and Chicken-of-the-Sea. According to urban legend, it’s also the tuna of ultimate choice for Jewish mothers preparing lunchtime sandwiches.
Ahi, back in 1969 when he’d started his commercial fishing career, were caught by using live opelu, a kind of tropical horse mackerel, skewered by the mouth on long hand-lines coiled into wooden boxes on deck. The ahi averaged about 70 kilos and were worth upwards of $2 a kilo at auction — which in those days made them a really valuable fish.
Meanwhile, he’d sometimes tie up at one of the Finnish communities, like Sointula, on the north coast of Vancouver Island, or Steveston, at the mouth of the Fraser River south of Vancouver. There, he’d sell fresh tuna off the boat, getting as much as $2.20 a kilo that way because the west-coast Finns were mostly salmon fishermen, but the Finnish housewives were experienced fish canners excellently able to lay down a supply for winter.
Of all his days and years at sea, tuna fishing stood out in his memory, mostly for its extremes. The most gorgeous weather — fine late summer or early autumn days, with skies so blue you had a hard time believing they were real — and the ocean waves fairly dancing under the cantering hull. But then there were terrifying storms as well, with men and boats shrouded between coffin-gray skies and seas, waves towering to the heights of low-rise apartment blocks, bitter bile driving the morning’s breakfast up to choke off the breath in your throat.
Catching tuna was itself a simple operation, compared with trolling long lines to hook salmon or trawling with nets for cod. Simple hooks and lines on the surface would lure albacore, the boat slapping along at a tidy 10 knots. Simple hooks and lines just below the surface would suffice for ahi, the boat silently drifting, the doomed opelu struggling as bait on the barbless stainless-steel hooks, pitiful prey for the ravenous schools of ahi, whipped into feeding frenzy by buckets of cut-up malolo (flying fish) thrown over the side as palu (bait).
Indifferent to such nostalgic musings, though, outside the sushi shop it had started raining a typhoon-driven deluge. He felt a twinge of neuralgia in the ham of his left leg, a legacy of too many cold-water soakings, too many hours on the ice of the fish hold, too many nights sleeping on a moldy bunk in damp woolen trousers while the boat, hove-to in a southeasterly gale, pitched and bucked like a bronco in an Alberta rodeo. Time for some hot miso shiru and anago — grilled eel deliciously brushed with teriyaki sauce.
He finished his second piece of maguro, firm but not chewy, taken in two bites, the dark-red flesh blending perfectly with the bright-green horseradish and polished off with a slice of pink pickled ginger and a swallow of hot, bitter green tea.
He got up from the counter and walked around to the steaming cauldron, took a black soup bowl from the stack of red and black bowls, flipped back the cauldron’s hinged, stainless-steel lid and ladled a serving of miso soup, laced with dark-green wakame and the dull-pink head of a large prawn. He drank the hearty broth, holding the bowl in both hands, setting it down on the counter occasionally to pick out some seaweed to eat with his chopsticks.
Soon the anago came round on the belt.
There were actually two kinds of eel served in sushi bars, anago and unagi. Both came grilled and anointed with a kind of thick, sweet teriyaki sauce. Anago, the saltwater conger eel, was a more common sushi dish than unagi, the freshwater eel, which was richer and at least twice as expensive.
Unagi was a traditional high-summer delicacy, popular in mid- to late-July after the rainy season, served hot on top of a bowl of plain white rice. It was believed to replace energy when the body’s resources had been drained by the season’s sweltering heat and stifling humidity on the Kanto Plain. For men, especially, it was believed to boost sexual vitality. Well, the weather was still within the comfort zone — cool, and even when the typhoon wasn’t blowing, kinda windy and wet — and he still had enough energy and vitality to keep himself and his young Japanese girlfriend happy and refreshed. So he stuck to anago.
After slurping all the soup, sipping more green tea and nibbling a little more pickled ginger, he again scanned the menu, printed in both the Japanese hiragana symbols he had learned to read, and the Chinese kanji characters he was still intermittently studying. You had to memorize at least 2,000 of those complex squiggles before you could begin to read everyday signs and labels.
He called for iwashi (sardine) next. Iwashi was a treat he’d learned to relish in Japan. In sushi bars it’s served raw, topped with freshly grated ginger (shoga) and finely sliced chives (negi), instead of wasabi. It was, to his taste, totemo oishii (quite delicious) — the fresh earthy vegetable flavors cutting and complimenting the rich oily taste of the fish. He recalled that in North America sardines are cheap, canned, rather smelly fish, hobo food, eaten on the road from a flip-top can (or, in times a little past, from cans with roll-back tops opened by attached, thumb-slicing metal keys). They are generally woofed down on hunks of sourdough bread, washed down with red rot-gut wine.
The iwashi at the kaiten zushiya were rich and filling, and his appetite was now nearly sated. He looked up again at the wooden menu signs hanging around the walls with their offerings described in thick black ink. He was surprised to see the kanji for nama (raw) and hiragana spelling out kaki (oyster). Certainly raw oysters, wrapped in black nori seaweed with lemon slices on the side would be a perfect postscript to the meal.
As they weren’t kosher, he’d not eaten oysters in his youth, but they’d become an important part of his life back on Vancouver Island where, on the section of Georgia Strait beachfront his cabin overlooked, they’d sprouted like turnips in a farmer’s field. Many were the days when dinner had been baked oysters, steamed oysters dipped in garlic-and-butter sauce, or thick, creamy oyster stew. And many were the winter nights when he’d been out on the moon-silvered beach picking oysters that he’d sell to his landlord — literally moonlighting to pay his bills.
But something was wrong here — something was very strange.
Oysters were never sold or served out of season in Japan. You couldn’t get them until late October at the earliest, and they were out of the stores and restaurants before March.
It was a similar, but bit shorter “window” than in the English-speaking world, where oysters were considered edible only in months with the letter “r” in them. No matter though; his taste buds overruled his reasoning power, and he called for nama-gaki. They were fresh, plump and juicy and, perhaps like no other dish, they conjured up his time living and fishing on Canada’s wild Pacific coast. Every bite of the mollusks evoked an ebbing tide laying bare a glistening, rocky beach, a darkening sky as one of winter’s southeast gales roared in, a curling whitecap lifting a rolling wooden hull, a cobalt sky reddening to purple under the palette of the slowly sinking sun.
When he paid his bill at the register, called out “Gochi so sama deshita!” to express his approval of the meal, and left the kaiten zushi shop, he noticed that the bright colors of the chrysanthemums — bride white, chrome yellow, lavender — were fading and turning brown around the edges, like rock cod fillets no longer fresh. Across the street, the persimmon tree stood leaf bare, the big black jungle crows finishing off the few remaining pale-orange fruits. Next door, the bold winter reds and whites of the camellias, set against their dark-green waxy leaves, were announcing the coming of the cold season. It could only be December.
Hillel Wright is the author of the novel “Border Town” (Printed Matter Press; 2006), and “Rotary Sushi” (New Orphic Publishers; 2003), a collection of short stories. A Canadian from Vancouver Island, he lives in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, with his wife and muse Shiori Tsuchiya.