Birthday Babel in Japan


“If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without climbing it, it would have been permitted.”  ~ Franz Kafka

Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel

“English?” Jody asks the two Japanese women wait staff that were just visible inside the restaurant’s curtain-draped entrance.  Sorrowful smiles graphically illustrated our answer, along with at least two “gomenasai,” Japanese for “sorry.”

It was my birthday, and we were on holiday in Kyoto, Japan.  Jody had asked earlier in the day what I wanted for dinner, and I immediately thought of some good, I mean really authentic Japanese teppanyaki steak.  We had spied a few potential places that day and during our explorations of the days prior, but after checking them out more closely, we dismissed them one-by-one.

Searching for Birthday Dinner in Kyoto

Searching for Birthday Dinner in Kyoto

One was just too small and cramped.  Another looked promising, but the patrons already there were all smoking.  We even asked the tourist police along Shijo Dori, the main commercial throughway marking the northern boundary of the famed Gion area of Kyoto…only to take a taxi to their recommendation…which turned out to be a rather lame take on an Amerasian diner, which apparently served steak, Salisbury style.

“Teppanyaki?” was the next question we placed, in what limited Japanese vocabulary we possess, although Jody is getting better with the apps on her iPhone.  This question was met with frowns and, mostly silence, but through steady eye-contact, the kind that searches for meaning in accents so unfamiliar.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Gion, dark alleyway

We found ourselves at this particular non-descript place after walking what seemed like forever.  Quite honestly, I was becoming downright HANGRY, and Jody’s dwarf alter-ego “Grumpy” was starting to shine through her rather reliably contained exterior as her blood sugar continued to decline.  There was a picture of beef, or maybe it was simply a picture of steak, with an establishment name written only in Kanji that we couldn’t read.  Other than for the word “dinning.”

Our Score with "Dining"!

Our Score with “Dining”!

Until more babel set in.

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“Steak?” was the final question in our trinity of query, placed with great anticipation of a positive response here on the 2nd story of what had become our own personal Tower of Babel.  “Hai-Hai!” came their excited response in almost perfectly synchronized union.  “Steak Dinning?”  Worked for us!  Steak dinning?  Worked for us!  I won’t go into how much babel we expended in trying to figure out what exactly came with our $60 meals….  At some point we caved, and decided to take the adventure this night promised.  And with that we were escorted into our own private dining room, eagerly awaiting whatever it was we were going to have for my birthday dinner.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Kevin's Birthday Dinner, Kobe steak dinner

“Babel,” from the Hebrew word balal, meaning “to jumble, confuse or confound.”  The Tower of Babel forms the focus of a story told in the Book of Genesis of the Bible (Genesis 11:4-9).  According to the story, a united humanity of the generations following the Great Flood spoke a single common language.  The people decided to build a city with a tower that would reach to heaven, thereby becoming on par with God.

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In the biblical legend, God came “down” to see the human’s city and the tower they were building.  Recognizing the fallacy of their intent, God knew this “stairway to heaven” would only lead the people astray…and to a hit record thousands of years later that ultimately would unite Rock-n-Roll fans across the globe, regardless of native tongues.  Wanting to check the people’s powerful unity of purpose resulting from their common language, God confused their speech and scattered the people, resulting in the many different tongues and peoples found today across the globe.  It still doesn’t explain how the kangaroos got to Australia, and only to Australia.

Okay, it’s not very religiously sensitive, it’s too long, and ends poorly.  But there are some dang funny parts in this interpretation of the story of the Tower of Babel!

Kevin's Birthday Jan 2014, candy topper decorations for the ice cream!

Kevin's Birthday Jan 2014, Disney happy ice cream party boxKevin's Birthday Jan 2014, yummy Baskin Robbins ice cream celebration!Jody, not wanting to drag all my presents hundreds of miles to Kyoto, celebrated with me on Okinawa prior to our departure.  While dinner that night has long been forgotten, my ice cream jamboree lives on!  Our local Japanese Baskin Robbins has a fully English-speaking staff; babel is not much of an issue in such an Americanized corner of the Ryukyus.  Except for the ice cream tower that, given just a few more scoops, could reach to heaven!  Luckily for us, God doesn’t spite ice cream steeples and Jody and I continue to share a common language…and location.

Our Ice Cream Tower of Goodness

Our Ice Cream Tower of Goodness

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Kevin's Birthday Dinner, sizziling Kobe beef cooked to order!Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Kevin's Birthday Dinner, Kobe Steak and White WineThe birthday dinner turned out to be quite good, filling, and even included a teppanyaki element we so vainly searched for.  Although it was a relatively simple dinner; the salad was absolutely delicious, the rice fresh, and the steak we were able to cook on our own person griddles to our individual tastes.  This particular beef remains the best I’ve had so far in Japan, and given the price we paid for 200 grams (actually, a hearty serving at almost 8 ounces), it was more than likely Kobe.  The steak, heavily marbled in fat, literally melted in our mouths. Top the meal off with a shared bottle of chilled white wine (booze is itself a form of a common, international language), and we had a wonderful time!

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Kevin's Birthday Dinner, Kobe steak dinner spread

Like the biblical tale underscores, communication is such a fundamental element of life.  Although I’m ashamed that I don’t know more Japanese after spending so much time here, technology is starting to fill in my own personal gaps in translation.  In fact, we were able to have a complete conversation with a taxi driver in Kyoto through an app on his iPad.  He would speak Japanese, and the iPad would translate and speak to us in English.  The tablet would then record our speech, and translate it into audible Japanese for the driver.  I wish I know that particular application, because many if not most of the machine translations between Japanese and English are full of…babel.

Machine Translations can be Ridiculous.

Machine Translations can be Ridiculous.

Regardless of the limitations of technology and the barriers of divided language (no thanks to God), we all can still overcome and strive to find power in unity of purpose.  Although perhaps we shouldn’t attempt to physically reach heaven (again), we can and should still find or make our own heavens here on earth, be it a celebratory meal, or something much loftier.  We all should be on guard so that we, as individuals, political parties, religions and even cultures, never build towers of babel so large and imposing that they interfere in a life that should be well-lived, excitedly shared, and passionately loved.  Although there exist many tongues, we all can strive to speak with one voice!

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Lost in Translation


Ichiban in Japanese.

Ichiban in Japanese.

“Ichiban” (Japanese) – literally “first” with an air of superiority; alternatively, “the shiznit” as urban slang….

This is NOT a story about shiznit. It is a story about things getting Lost in Translation, a favorite pastime of the Japanese.Realizing that Jody and I will probably not eat enough Japanese food while living in Okinawa over the next three years (here’s where you should feel the sarcasm dripping down the back of your neck), we decided – after an exhausting day of moving and packing for our Far East Fling – to head over to one of our favorite local Japanese restaurants in Pensacola, Ichiban.

Ichiban has been consistently good, marginally authentic, and we both consider it one of our better Asian-inspired and flavored eateries.  We ask for one of their low tables, the gimmicky ones with a tatami floor, you know, to help us get into the habit of taking our shoes off about five times as often as we ‘Mericans do in the states.  I glance over at the Sushi bar, and I see THREE what appear to be full-blooded and able-bodied Japanese sushi chefs.  No Amerasians or API knock-offs here.  Oh, and they are working in a space the size of small linen closet.  The ambiance is good; picturesque Japanese-themed décor in low light, all seats taken by eager, happy and hungry customers.

Ichiban, Pensacola, FL

Ichiban, Pensacola, FL

And then our overly caucasian waiter shows up.

No problem.  He’s very courtesy, soft-spoken, and by all appearances, seems to be a seasoned waiter capable of handling the most complex of sushi orders.  So, we start to order, and something odd happens….

Jody orders a couple of sushi rolls and asks to leave the cream cheese off, to which the waiter – we’ll call him Gaijin for purposes which complement this blog oh so well (and if you really appreciate this particular vernacular reference, please leave a comment!) – jokes that he too dislikes cream cheese on his sushi and gladly annotates his order-taking/keeping pad just so.  One hopes.

Now my turn.  I order vegetable tempura – a very hard thing to cook properly at home (seltzer water is the key in the batter, but mum’s the word).  One of the primary reasons I asked Jody to marry me stems from our mutual, shall we say, “dislike” of mushrooms, and since the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty keeps me from declaring global thermonuclear war on all mushrooms far and wide, I asked Gaijin to substitute another vegetable in place of ‘shrooms.

He smiles helpfully as he offers his first and almost instantaneous suggestion for a viable substitute for the disgusting and offensive fungi:  cucumbers.

Jody and I share one of those almost imperceptible yet knowing glances with each other, the kind that come only from a deep intimacy, mentally and silently both stating in unison, “cucumber tempura??”  I swear Jody’s lips mimed this phrase!

I look up at Gaijin and smile that kind of smile where you don’t know exactly what to say without embarrassing someone you don’t know nor wish to put on the spot.  I start, trying to buy some time while my mind raced for a more optimal solution, “Well, I was thinking more like….”

“Asparagus?” Gaijin replies.

If we could only empty them on our command.

If we could only empty them on our command.

“Yes,” my response comes, said quickly in relieved fashion.  But then immediately the thought flashes through my mind:  asparagus is not normally a “standard” tempura vegetable.  Way too expensive.  Confusion returns, but all seems well and I really like tempura asparagus, so I let this portion of my order go.  And I continue order udon soup – my favorite Asian soup besides maybe Vietnamese Pho – as my main dinner entrée.

The service is good and attentive, and our drinks and Japanese ginger tea quickly arrive.  But we wait and wait, and for a tempura appetizer, it seems an inordinately long period of time.

And then suddenly food appears.  Jody gets her sushi rolls…as ordered.

And just as suddenly, what appear to be sushi rolls are placed in front of me.  “Veggie sushi roll,” Gaijin speaks softly as he glides a plate in front of me.

Vegetable Sushi - what's the point? And not what I ordered....

Vegetable Sushi – what’s the point? And not what I ordered….

“Oh I don’t think so!” I reply.  Now he looks as equally perplexed.  “No, I ordered the vegetable tempura.”  More bewilderment as you can literally see the waiter replaying in HIS mind the order-taking process from 15 minutes prior, but surely one of fifty tonight to try and remember, and no doubt, one of hundreds for the week which would befuddle even the most proficient of servers.

Weird yet Official Signage in Japan

Weird yet Official Signage in Japan

No problem.  Mistakes happen.  And as quickly as the food was placed, it was removed while Gaijin retires to correct his mistake.  In the meantime, my soup does arrive.  As ordered, mind you, but not as prepared as it is in the orient.  Nor does it taste even remotely like even the shadow of an udon soup bowl in the Far East….

Delicious Udon Soup.  It awaits me somewhere in Okinawa....

Delicious Udon Soup. It awaits me somewhere in Okinawa….

Jody and I, however, make the best of our situation and endeavor to happily enjoy our food, talking about how much we look forward to eating out in Okinawa.

And my tempura arrives….

An official boatload of tempura....

An official boatload of tempura….

…to our shock and awe.  And even speechless amazement.

It is a “tempura boat” dinner entrée!  I literally have never seen more tempura on one plate – which happens to be one of those cheesy boats so often used in American Asian food – in my life.  Certainly easily enough to feed a table of four, if not six comfortably.  So large, in fact, that it’s quite ridiculous not just to be placed on my table, but served with another entrée item off the menu…to a single diner.

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At this point really all we can do is laugh.  And we do.  However, as I’m smirking about the foolishness of this particular situation, I do tell Gaijin that what and all I really wanted was a couple of hot, succulent, perfectly breaded pieces of tempura.  Well, actually no, I didn’t say exactly that; I did say that I wanted the appetizer tempura, and at this point, Gaijin offers a final apology and retires quickly, and quite unexpectedly extricates himself from the awkward situation.  Of his making.

Needless to say, the attentiveness to our needs for the remainder of the evening was significantly curtailed.

So, this actually turned out to be the perfect way to prepare if not wet our expectations – and our taste buds – for our upcoming Far East Flirtations with any number of forthcoming culinary adventures.  We, at least, can be assured that our wait staff overseas will be…for sure Japanese…and mostly correct in translation, even though quite certainly English will be at least their second language.

And hopefully, god willing, this will be our LAST silly gaijin-boatload of tempura.

PS – if you couldn’t figure out or decipher the featured graphic, below you’ll find the key:

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