The Mielparque Hotel had a breakfast buffet with Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and western-style foods.
Alongside various forms of tofu, pickled vegetables, and fish, there were runny scrambled eggs, British favourites like fried tomatoes and baked beans; and spaghetti—something I saw on breakfast buffets in Australia.
I loaded up and felt like I was in heaven. This was my first Japanese meal and looking back, it’s pretty sad compared with many that followed.
One of the joys of Japanese eating is that a meal may include 12 small dishes, all served in beautiful porcelain or lacquered wood bowls or plates, on a wooden tray. So the serving ware above is not typical.
But the squash soup was to die for. So rich! I never tasted its equivalent again.
Miso was served with every meal I had all month. Rice was standard unless it was a noodle meal. Pickled plums (lower right) are sweet, sour, and salty all at once and absolutely sensational. Smoked salmon was central to breakfast. One standard breakfast thing not shown above was the sheets of nori (dried seaweed) in a plastic wrapper. Several times in the days to come, waiters would point it out on my breakfast tray and explain that I should unwrap it and soak it in soy sauce before eating it with rice. You can imagine how many tourists must have tried to eat the wrapper, or dry. Kind of like people trying to eat the corn husks in which tamales come wrapped.
Another item not shown above is the aduki, or adzuki, beans. On the buffet, they came in a little paper cup with a cellophane lid. I was intrigued. At my table, I peeled back the lid to reveal strings of slime. I tried a few, gagged, and set them to one side.
The Mielparque was one of only two places I stayed that made coffee available. Typically, only green tea was provided in accommodations. I would be grateful I had brought a small jar of instant coffee and a box of creamer cups in my suitcase.
Most meals in Japan start with the cleaning of one’s hands at the table. This might be as lovely as being handed a warmed, jasmine-scented white wash cloth artfully rolled up and presented on a small tray, but usually it involved a wet wipe in a plastic wrap.
I had used the wipe and it had been whisked away by a waiter. My nose started to run. It unhelpfully does this when I eat something spicy. I searched for a paper napkin but there were none. Could I get away with rubbing my nose with the back of my hand? I was the only westerner in the dining room and I had chosen a seat facing the center of the room so I could people watch. This meant they all faced me. Would my fellow diners be disgusted if I wiped?
Over and over, I had read that Japanese expected westerners to get their etiquette wrong.
I wiped, trying to act nonchalant. No one looked in my direction, but somehow I felt they all saw what I did and condemned all Americans for being nose wipers. But hey—there were toothpicks on the table. Was it acceptable to pick my teeth—if not my nose—at the table?
The dining room was silent except for a small boy playing with his Anpanman action toy. This was my introduction to how quiet Japan is. No one in the dining room—or anywhere, ever—was blabbing loudly on his phone. I never heard a text alert tone or cell phone ring. I never heard a jack hammer, although there must have been construction going on. I only heard one power tool in the many gardens I visited, and the user switched it off as soon as he saw me coming. I heard only a handful of sirens or cars honking.
This all goes to the Japanese value of harmony of the group, which Lynn and I would learn more about when we took a cooking class in Kyoto from a guy who had lived in the US.
I forgot to ask him about nose wiping.