He showed up at my hotel in Ginza 15 minutes early, beating me at my own game of conspicuous punctuality. After the de rigeur bowing and exchanging of business cards, we headed to a taxi, the first one I'd encountered in Japan since my arrival in Tokyo two days earlier.
The cab had lace antimacassars on the seat backs, and the driver was clad in a business suit and immaculate white gloves. He pressed a button on the dashboard and the door to the cab swung open automatically.
Our destination was Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, the busiest transportation hub in the world. We were to catch a train that would take us away from Tokyo, at a time of day when most of the station's 3.5 million daily users were arriving there on their way to work in the city.
I've been six feet tall since shortly after my 13th birthday, so I am easily a head taller than most Japanese people. So as we pushed forward into the station, I was like a salmon trying to swim upstream against a shoulder-height river of black satiny hair rushing past me.
I was with a kacho, which is a mid-level manager, from a Japanese conglomerate. He was a PR Kacho, taking me to view his company's vineyards in Yamanashi ken (county) on the back side of Mt. Fuji. Aim of the trip was for me to interview the winemaker for a story I was writing about the Japanese wine industry.
Kachos occupy an interesting position in Japanese companies, they aren't often highly compensated, and are expected to work unrelentingly long hours. They are beginning to have a fair level of autonomy in their careers, in return for their loyalty to the company and their lockstep seniority.
Dining out at fancy restaurants is a rare luxury for most Japanese. But when a kacho has the responsibility to entertain a foreign visitor, one of the big perquisites of the job is the ability to use the company's expense account, often to visit restaurants that would be otherwise unaffordable or even unattainable, in terms of access.
I can't remember this particular kacho's name so let's just call him Watanabe-san, Watanabe's being one of the most common surnames in Japan. He was solicitous, and I think anxious that I might come away with a bad impression of Japan in general and his company in particular.
The train trip to the vineyard took a couple of hours, winding through snow-covered hills (this was in January). We had to change trains at one rural station, and I remember standing on the platform looking out at a snow-covered persimmon tree on which the bright orange fruit stood out as sharply as Christmas tree balls.
When we finally got to the vineyard, it was impressive. Viticultural methoods were a little different from what I had seen back in the U.S., with some accommodations made to a higher propensity for mold in Japan's more humid climate. The leaves were gone, but they had left some bunched of grapes hanging on the vines, with an open white sheet of paper carefully placed at the top of the bunch.Watanabe-san explained that this was to keep mold from migrating from the leaves to the fruit.
Even though it was a chilly January day, we had lunch at a table set up out in the vineyard, looking out over rolling vine-covered hills to that perfect cone of Mt. Fuji. I was eager to see what the winery chef would decide to serve, and was somewhat taken back when the meal proved to be a bowl of beef stew, probably the very last thing I expected to eat there. But the stew was piping hot, so, while it was a surprise, it was just right for such a day.
I don't remember much about the wines except that they weren't much to my taste. They were made with unfamiliar grape varieties, mainly Koshu -- a white wine grape -- and Muscat Bailey A, which produces a light red wine. The grape varieties had been chosen for their ability to tolerate long freezing winters, and the humid region's propensity for mold, and those are not necessarily the qualities that make great wine.
Once we got on the train heading back to Tokyo, Watanabe-san started asking me what kind of food I liked and where I wanted to go for dinner. I hadn't expected that dinner was part of the experience, but, to be polite said that would be lovely and anything would do.
He kelp pressing me for more details, so finally I just said ``Nihon ryori,'' which means Japanese cuisine, figuring I'd get a chance to have some really good sushi in the land from whence it comes.
We had to stop to change trains again, and this time the station was full of school girls, all clad in the middy-blouse and skirt uniform that is standard at most Japanese schools. Clearly they didn’t see foreigners that often up close and personal, particularly a very tall western woman traveling alone, so they stared and stared as they gulped quick bowls of noodles.
Our train came but once we were about 10 minutes out of the station, it stopped. The conductor kept making announcements to explain the situation. I knew just enough Japanese to be befuddled by what he was saying, as he kept using the word ``tako,'' which I knew was the Japanese word for octopus. I could not figure out why an octopus would have anything to do with a train stalled in the foothills near Mt. Fuji.
Finally Watanabe-san explained that ``tako'' is also the word for kite, and that a kite had gotten tangled in the overhead wires and shorted them out. The train, of course, was electric.
So we sat for some hours, as darkness fell and it began to get colder and colder. Finally the line was repaired and, several hours later, we drew into Tokyo's Shinjuku station. Watanabe-san parked me on a bench in the vast station and headed over to a pay phone to make several animated phone calls. This was, of course, in the days before everyone was carrying around cell phones.
Finally satisfied, Watanabe-san came over to collect me and the two of us got into another taxi that had been summoned through one of the phone calls. We drove for about 20 minutes and finally stopped in front of an unimpressive doorway, behind which a flight of stairs was visible.
Watanabe-san said we had arrived at the restaurant and seemed to be excited and eager to ascend the stairs. I don't know what I expected, perhaps something with tatami mats and low tables.
Instead, we were met by a waiter wearing black knee breeches, black stockings, black shoes with large silver buckles, and a white shirt with billowing sleeves, rather like a pirate might wear.
He ushered us into the dining room which had heavy dark wood tables and wing-back chairs upholstered in a dark floral design. The walls had dark wood wainscoting running up to a chair rail, with a floral wallpaper above. Prints of 18th century sailing ships framed in dark wood hung on the walls.
The table was set with heavy white linen, and had candles in silver candlesticks. Each place setting had an army of silver cutlery arranged in perfect geometric order extending in each side from the silver charger.
The waited handed us menus, which were written only in Japanese. So I asked Watanabe-san to order for me. A lengthy consultation with the waiter ensued, and finally he went off to turn in our orders. He returned with large glasses of the wine we had tasted earlier in the day up in the vineyard, so I assumed that this restaurant must have been one of the winery's customers.
Eventually our food came. Watanabe-san had ordered the same meal for both of us. It came in lidded silver porringers with pierced-work handles at one side.
I lifted the lid and what did I find? More beef stew. Certainly exquisite beef stew, with each piece of carrot and potato meticulously cut to the exact same size. The beef was beyond tender, although I really hope they hadn't used that incredibly pricey Kobe beef for such a mundane dish as stew.
I was mystified by the food. This didn't look like any Japanese food I had ever eaten before, and the restaurant certainly had no elements of décor I would have recognized as Japanese. Then I took a look at Watanabe-san's face. He was, as one might say, in hog heaven. He was thrilled at the meal, and was eating each bite with great relish.
Watanabe-san's English was not terribly nuanced, so it took a while for me to craft a question for him that, I thought, wouldn't be too impolite. I wanted to ask him why in the world we were eating beef stew when I'd told him I liked Japanese food.
Although Watanabe-san got an embarrassed look on his face after hearing my question, he quickly insisted that this really truly was Japanese cuisine. I gestured to the waiter in his knee breeches and to the sailing-ship prints on the wall and asked Watanabe-san, ``Nihon ryori honto?'' (Really Japanese food?) Again he insisted that this was true Japanese cooking.
So then I asked him what kind of Japanese food this was. His reply came quickly: ``Oranda ryori.'' Oranda? I'd never heard of a region in Japan known as Oranda. In fact, the only time I'd ever heard that word was in connection with a kind of long-tailed goldfish.
What in the world could Oranda be? Then I remembered that Japanese has a lot of loan words from English and other European languages. So what sounds like Oranda in English? Oranda, Oranda?
Then all of a sudden I got it. Oranda . . . Holland. This had to have been Dutch-inspired Japanese food.
The Dutch came to Japan in the early 17th century, and after they sided with the Tokugawa Shogunate in crushing a rebellion by Catholic Christian Japanese, they were the only European nation permitted to remain in Japan.
They were given the former Portuguese trade concession on Dejima Island in the Nagasaki harbor, and for the next century provided Japan's only window to European science and technology. The Dutch left their mark on Japan, including a number of loan words that became Japanized, such as ``biru,'' which came from the Dutch word for beer (bier), ``garasu'' for window glass (glas), ``renzu'' for lens, and ``dansu'' for dance (dans).
And apparently they left some of their cuisine behind, including beef stew. After I returned from Japan, I did a little reading about Dutch cooking and discovered that ``hachee'' is a popular beef stew containing carrots and potatoes, onions, and a little vinegar. I'm pretty sure that's what we had that night.
Watanabe-san had never been to this restaurant before, and it seemed that a beef stew was a big treat for him. Plus, in a restaurant with high tables and chairs, plates and silverware, he didn't have to worry about embarrassing issues relating to meals with foreigners such as whether I could sit on the floor and eat with chopsticks (of course I can), or would find raw fish to be too yucky (which I definitely do not).
After dinner Watanabe-san was eager to take me to a bar, also on the corporate nickel, but it had been a long day, and, besides, I wasn't that eager to go to some little hole in the wall, as most Japanese bars are, and sip his company's very expensive whisky for hours, as is the prevailing practice.
He seemed disappointed, realizing that his ride on the winery's expense account was ending for the night. He summoned another cab, which took me back to my hotel, and after a few more rounds of bowing and a declaration of undying friendship, he finally left and I headed back to my room.
For Watanabe-san, this meal was a very big deal. For me, with two big bowls of beef stew in one day in Japan, of all places, it was something else. Not bad, of course, but certainly not what I expected, or hoped to find. Who could ever have dreamed of going to Japan to eat beef stew, much less what was undoubtedly an incredibly expensive beef stew?