Okonomiyaki Story

It’s been a while since my last post, which is both a shame and very exciting, since it’s a sign that I’ve been so splendidly busy I haven’t had time to record what I’m up to. There is quite a bit to report, but I’l write this post about restaurants in Tokyo.

One of the main reasons I love living here is the food. Though transportation is a killer (incredibly convenient but expensive), a hole-in-the-wall bar run by your local mom-like figure, and regularly frequented by the neighborhood crew is always less than 5 minutes away from wherever you live. And the food is, almost without exception, well-priced and either excellent or decent. Besides this, you always return from a dining experience with a little story.

The other day, for example, a friend and I were saving ourselves a few bucks by walking home from a farther station instead of taking the train. Ravenously hungry and in search of a good okonomiyaki place (savory pancake from Osaka area), we debated where to eat. Wandering into a random restaurant or izakaya (Japanese pub) was all very good, but who could guarantee it would be worth it? Then again, looking for recommendations online sounded time-consuming and ultimately unhelpful in our tiny neighborhood. As we turned the corner at the bus lot, my friend said, “Well how about there?”

I looked over at the slightly dingy-looking place advertising its okonomiyaki. It looked like most of the izakaya in our neighborhood – a few red lanterns out front, with a short blue noren (cloth divider) and a fluorescent sign. The wooden door slid open as an older sister let a toddler outside to blow a few bubbles (apparently, not an uncommon past-time – my 20-something badminton friends wanted to bring bubble blowers to a barbeque, along with the less surprising volleyballs and frisbees). The 5 or so tables were occupied by a young family and a few older men with giant bottles of sake. I looked suspiciously at a man wearing grey parachute pants – the person subletting to me had said at some point that yakuza (Japanese mafia/gangs) members tended to wear them… Apparently many tend to live in this area; maybe it was a regular hangout …

“Let’s go!” My friend, who had arrived only a few days ago and was therefore unaware of the potential danger of parachute-pants-wearing men, walked briskly towards the door. My hunger and vague feeling of embarrassment won out over my paranoia, and I trotted along after him.

Everyone seemed to stare as we wandered in and plunked down at the only open table. I suppose foreign-looking pairs don’t wander into hole-in-the-wall izakayas frequented only by the neighborhood crew that often. As I puzzled over the menu, my friend nudged me a little. “I see the owner is a women’s wrestling fan.”

“Huh?”

“Look at the posters!”

I stop deciphering the menu – peppered with kanji and dishes I don’t know, anyways – and look over at the posters to my left. Five wrestlers frown down at me, their black leather costumes gleaming. Well, that certainly isn’t kawaii (cute). Though all the wrestlers are wearing make-up, they don’t display any markers of kawaisa/cuteness (smiling, bright, soft, small, etc). “You should ask the owner about the posters,” my friend prods. I nod and order for both of us (he can’t speak or read more than five words in Japanese). Since you are supposed to fry your own okonomiyaki, the owner brings us a bowl of the mix and shows us how to get started. After we work through our first and she brings us the monjayaki mix (a thinned-out version of okonomiyaki), I ask about the posters.

“Are you a wrestling fan?” (An obvious question, since the tiny place is covered with wrestling posters).

“Yup,” she says. “Those two over there are wrestlers.”

“Huh?”

“This is Giro-san,” she says, pointing to a poster of a frowning woman with short hair and turquoise eye-shadow. I look over at the two larger women who had walked in a few minutes ago, noticing the resemblance. Apparently they come here at least once a week, bringing boxes of pizza and sharing wrestling stories with the other neighborhood characters. She knew them from outside of work before she started the shop. I look at her again, wondering if she had been a wrestler before. She does have the build and if she knew them outside of work … Too shy to ask, I let the moment slip by; we pay for our clumsy meal and continue on our way, debating whether or not we should have asked for a picture with the owner and wrestlers.

“That would’ve been so great …” Our voices melt into the humid darkness as we trod home, sighing dreams of what could have been at our small discovery.

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