I've Always Wanted to Go to Japan

Japan - The Strange Country (Japanese ver.) from Kenichi on Vimeo.

I can't remember when I first fell in love with the idea of Japan, but there are a few distinct moments/experiences that are indelibly tied to my (likely wrong-minded) impression of it. Among these, my short stint as a waitress at a restaurant called Neo-Japonica in the late '90s stands out.

When I was a university student, I spent the better part of a year working at what was then Regina's only Japanese restaurant. I had only tried sushi once before working there, on a whim when I was about 20. I didn't know what to order and, when it arrived, I didn't know what to do with it. The smell reminded me of formaldehyde and I'm pretty sure I ate very little of it.

I applied for the job at Neo-Japonica mainly out of laziness and necessity. I needed a job and the restaurant was literally a five minute walk from my flat. Apart from fairly decent tips, the only benefit was that when working, staff got to eat for free. Sometime after the hazing when the cooks filled the first roll I ate as an employee with strong Wasabi, I fell a little bit in love with the food and with the ritual of eating it. I was in my early twenties, and in-between serving tables, I was lucky enough to try all kinds of amazing dishes in the server's cubby at the back of the restaurant, usually while listening to a bad medley of pop song from the 80s and early 90s covered by instrumental Japanese jazz bands. I didn't love everything on the menu and I'm still not a fan of octopus (especially those whole baby ones we served) and I don't like the idea of dipping pieces of uncooked beef in raw egg... But I love raw tuna and salmon, miso soup with extra green onions, yakitori of pretty much any variety, warm sake, udon noodles (any noodles actually), tempura, green tea ice cream... even just some sticky rice with lovely, salty Kikoman soy sauce...

Life as a waitress at Neo-Japonica wasn't always brilliant, but when I think back on it, I mostly remember really good things. It was a strange little family of people, the food was good and my memories are mostly dreamy impressions - the lingering tastes of things I grew to love eating while working there.

Now Regina has a number of Japanese restaurants, including an all-you-can-eat sushi bar and a place with a sushi train. With all the competition, I've heard that Neo-Japonica has closed down. It makes me a bit sad that everyone abandoned it once the flashy, new (and probably cheaper) places opened up. It was a really good place - one of the few unique Asian restaurants in Regina to open up in the mid-90s - certainly a minority among the steak chains and all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets.

Dan and I are planning to be in Japan for about three months this autumn as part of our year long adventure, and it will be interesting to see how my impressions of the place connect with its reality. Sophia Coppola's film Lost in Translation is one of my favourites, not only because it is beautifully shot in the neon-lit, kookiness of Tokyo, but because in it she captures the strange, fleeting, disorientating loneliness of visiting a new place. We carry all of these preconceived impressions and hopes with us everywhere we go and even (especially?) when blanketed with new experiences, we grip to them tightly and hold ourselves a little bit apart - or at least I do. I think I relate to the film so much because I understand new places not by assimilating, but by riding the edges of the differences, the cracks, the strangeness.

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