Breakfast in Japan

The un-celebrated view of the Seto Inland Sea, Kobe, Japan; Copyright: Stardust

On my first morning in Japan, on my first trip ever to Asia, I carefully studied my options for breakfast.  It appeared as if the hotel where I was staying had several restaurants–with at least 4 choices for the morning meal:

The lobby of the Portopia Hotel, Kobe.

There was the highly touted Plein d’ Etoiles, on the 30th floor, with a panoramic floor to ceiling view of the downtown Kobe, the port, and the inland sea.

There was Soco, a lively cafe on the second floor, overlooking the palatial lobby, which offered as many choices as the Sky restaurant above:

Tiny pancakes and petite french toast and other Western breakfast standards, in Japanese fashion. There was fruit and salads and dim sum and fish and tea and coffee and Danish.  There were things I had never seen. There were omelettes made to order. There were meats. There was a bounty of food overflowing from as many as 4 different silver-trayed food stations.

Downstairs in the South Wing, there was the Garden Terrace Restaurant, which I suspected served as an overflow restaurant on busy weekends, like this–Golden Week. It too had an entire station devoted to a traditional Japanese breakfast, as well as tables laden with Western favorites. Outside was the hotel “Chapel” where several weddings took place during my stay.

Down the hall and around a corner from the Garden Terrace,  there was some place altogether different…

Hushed.

Tranquil.

With smells I’ve never experienced at breakfast before.

I tentatively followed a gently lit, curving path, lined with plants and ponds, and then stepped across a small bridge into an almost silent room where a woman in a kimono led me to table with a smile, even though it was evident that I didn’t understand a word she was saying.

Several other tables were filled with families. All Japanese. All facing the sand garden out the window. All silently enjoying their meals. Even the toddlers.

One baby took a liking to me, and I flirted back, and watched as she and her older brother ate earnestly from the bowls of food that each of us received on a tray.

My token use of chopsticks at the Chinese restaurant back home was quickly put to the test as I looked at the meal before me:

A small tray of fish.

A tiny bowl with Kobe beef.

Delicate pickled items and radishes.

Some sort of relish and sauce.

A custardy kind of dish.

A broth with a tiny rolled egg thing…

Japanese Breakfast, Kelly Salasin, 2012

I had no idea what I was eating or how to combine it, and there was no one to ask (in English) so I followed what cues I could from the toddler and then simply sensed my way through this most perfect of meals, while sipping green tea, and exploring tastes I have never known–bean paste and and seaweeds and Japanese porridge.

This was a breakfast that I had never imagined, and one that I will always treasure as my introduction to the stillness and beauty of Japan.

Kelly Salasin, May 2012

Japan, you had me at Toilet

Japan, come on now. Stop it!  You don’t need to offer those gracious bows.Or your incessantly impressive food with simply stunning presentation. You don’t need to lure me with seven varieties of breakfast rolls, or 4 kinds of salt or the myriad of ways in which you offer health to every meal–with fish or seaweed or pickles or miso.  There’s no need for the delectable Kobe sweets or even its orgasmic beef–although that is a meal that I never, ever want to forget.

Truly, Japan, you had me a Toilet; and that was while I was in the air over my own country; before I discovered your in-country toilets.

For the restroom in JAL’s 787 flight from Boston to Tokyo was a surprise. Streamlined. Crisp. High functioning. You gave limited space a feeling of spaciousness and even understood the sublime relevance of place on the counter for a folded paper flower in the morning after 11 hours in the air.

But it was when I arrived in the airport in Tokyo that my world view was shifted. There, I encountered my first toilet– with a control panel of choices (which I was afraid to use until the comfort of my own hotel); and I was hooked–line & sinker.

It did take me awhile to figure out how to flush and another day to figure how to turn down the temperature on the seat once I had turned it up; but I caught on quickly with the bidet and “posterior” rinse, and regretted that my hotel room did not offer some of the features I experienced in public restrooms: the “powerful deodorizer,” the air dryer, the variety of sprays, the music, the flushing “sound” (for enhanced discreetness.)

Kobe Convention Center

No matter where I encountered your toilets, even your terribly frightening traditional ones on the floor, there was always one feature upon which I could rely: Privacy. Floor to ceiling doors enclosed each toilet space for that most intimate of needs. Sometimes, even a tiny sink was included.

I’m sorry, but it just isn’t enough to list Toilets at the top of the 10 Things I’ll Miss Most About Japan, I have to elaborate, even if my friends have grown tired of my gushing.

I will restrain myself from talking about anything beyond the toilets–like the round ball that served as the most perfect and easy to use tub stopper that I have ever encountered.Or the slot inside the door of my hotel room, where the key card is placed, which results in the lights and the air condition turning on–or off, when you depart. Or the tiny apartment where I stayed in Kyoto, where the faucet for the sink pivoted to serve as faucet for the bath; or the toilet which had a sink built into it–where hands were washed before the water traveled into the tank for flushing.

Space & resource efficient sink/toilet combo. Kyoto apartment.

The truth is that I don’t typically get excited about mechanics and technology, but you hit me where it counts–in the place where we all crave comfort and privacy and efficiency.

Before you, I never gave much thought to restrooms. I never compared one country to another over it. I certainly never fell in love with a place because of it. But like a lovesick teenager, I can’t sing enough of your praises.

My resident therapist (aka. my husband) suspects that years of toileting trauma at the hands of my grandmother may have been healed in my two week visit to your country.

Did I mention the fold-out seats in bathrooms stalls–even on the plane? (You know, where you can put down your toddler, instead of trying to juggle him on your lap while you wipe.)

…And what about the fold-out shelves? A clean place to put your things, like backpacks or shopping bags,  instead of on the floor?

Seriously, Japan, set aside your stunning temples and shrines, you had us at Toilet.

Kelly Salasin, May 2012

ps. One question though. What was this contraption for?

pps. For those who are wondering, here’s a photo of the traditional toilet, still apparently preferred by many (Japanese) women–of all ages. Practice those squats ladies! Some of these don’t come with balance bars.

Public toilet

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