A visit to any part of Japan is a totally new journey to a totally new existence. It is a delightful attack on your senses, not merely taste and smell and sight but the heartfelt connection with every individual you meet.
Mention Japan and people start talking about sushi. That was what happened when I found out that the LexisNexis Asia 2012 Kick Off would be held in Fukuoka, Japan. My friends who love Japanese food (ie: sushi) started getting excited on my behalf while I was busy preparing for the meeting. I gave sushi little thought. It didn’t help matters that I did not like sushi (yup, I do now!).
After a week in mundane, quiet Fukuoka, I thought it was time for me to dispel the sushi myth — that a visit to any part of Japan is a totally new journey to a totally new existence. It is a delightful attack on your senses, not merely taste and smell and sight but the heartfelt connection with every individual you meet, the attention to detail in every aspect of daily life, the invisible but powerful sense of pride and honour in all undertaking. It is enviable, this existence. I wish we could import that to our existence.
I hope I brought a little bit of it back home and I sincerely hope I spread the word — that Japan is not all about sushi.
I’ll start with the people. There is an ingrained sense of pride in everything they undertake. They are proud of their work and they do their utmost to bring honour to what they do. Translate that to the clerk at the checkout counter in the supermarket, the waiter at a restaurant, the bus driver, the officer at the information counter, the cute guy at the front desk of your hotel (you get my point). It did not feel contrived, the perfect customer service experience that was accorded to every person they met. It did not feel like they did so because their supervisor was hovering over their shoulders.
It felt like they treated you with the highest honour because it was what would give them a sense of pride. It was utterly surreal and humbling to the discerning. One particular moment will be etched in my memory for a long time.
On the first night, we were treated to a glorious traditional drum performance during dinner. I was blown away by the pure energy, spirit and passion which exuded from the three drummers. These drummers were traditionally asked to perform during new year celebrations and formed an ancient part of Fukuoka culture. The lead drummer commanded the scene, flanked by two others to his right and left, teasing the audience with slow and fast beats, building up to a crescendo of beautifully orchestrated drumbeats that got all our hearts beating fast and furious, gloriously awake and tuned into the pure energy of their performance.
I could see the passion that they had for their craft. The two drummers fed off the energy of the lead drummer, giving him their full attention and respect. It was amazing to watch! Even when they were not performing, they were focused on the music they were producing, visibly enjoying it and feeding off it. They were at one with their craft. It was an honour for them to share it with us. It was an honour for us to be a part of their existence. It almost felt like we were intruding. It was unbelievable.
Fukuoka is famous for its hand-made ramen noodles and I wanted to experience it. It was definitely an experience!
We went to a restaurant called Ichiran and as soon as we entered, we were directed to a vending machine (yes!). I pushed the appropriate button to select my ramen dish. I didn’t know what I was doing, so I just punched the button with the most appetizing picture on it and it worked for me. The machine then printed a cute little coupon which I took to the dining room.
The room featured individual booths and I sat in my own little booth, equipped with soy sauce, my own hot water tap, another little menu from which I would further customize my order. I stipulated how soft I wanted my noodle, how much of the “secret sauce” I wanted to add into my soup and a host of other additions to my dish! I scratched my head a little, snapped out of my confused state and went with the flow. It was wonderful!
My dish arrived and I referred to the detailed set of instructions on how to enjoy my ramen in my booth. I followed these religiously and delighted in the experience. You first take a sip of the soup, without stirring the contents. You then stir it thoroughly and then take another sip. I immediately tasted the difference. The secret ingredient was at the bottom of the bowl and stirring it brought out the flavour in the soup.
I then proceeded to slurp my noodles and my soup as instructed. It was heavenly. I now understood why I had to be alone with my ramen. I had to pay it the respect it was due, focus on my bowl of ramen and enjoy it. Boy, did I enjoy it.
Again, I experienced the utmost respect accorded to a craft. The making and serving of a bowl of noodles and the attention to detail, from the ingredients sourced to the way in which it would be consumed. It was all an experience and it was all designed to pay homage to a craft. It was amazing and for me, rare.
I was overwhelmed, not by the taste of the dish I just consumed. I was overwhelmed by the passion with which it was created. If only this could be the case for all who create. If only this could be exhibited by all who contributed to a cause. There was a sense of achieving the ultimate objective in everything the Japanese embarked on. It wasn’t exaggerated. It was matter-of-fact.
I tasted more wonderful meals, more exotic (to me, they were!) dishes and yes, the sushi was wonderful. I enjoyed the tea they served, the sashimi and hot pot unique to Hakata City, tasted blowfish sake (it was a bit weird) and met many wonderful people along the way.
It was my first experience of Japan, and it will not be my last.