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Sunday, Jan. 21, 2001

JAPAN LITE

Almost like a mouthful of Momma's tasty tofu


If you're a foreigner in Japan, Japanese people will always ask you, "Why are you in Japan?" If you're a foreigner who has been in Japan a awhile, Japanese people will always ask you, "Why are you still in Japan?"

OK, I'm going to tell you why I'm still in Japan. I'm going to tell you why I'm still in Japan even though I'm not married to a Japanese person.

It's the tofu shop down the street. This is the best tofu shop in Japan, probably the entire world.

This tofu restaurant is not like a typical "izakaya" restaurant where waiters and waitresses marathon around the room as if they were Concord flight attendants. It's not the kind of place where they're passing dishes of food from chef to waiter like batons in the 400-meter dash. I fully expect to enter an izakaya some day to find Nomo pitching the food out to the tables.

The tofu restaurant is different.

I love Japan for its attitude that each type of food gets its own special restaurant. You have your "udon" restaurant, your "okonomiyaki" restaurant, your tempura restaurant.

Can you imagine having such restaurants in the United States? A potato restaurant (serving French fries, mashed potatoes, potato salad, and baked potatoes), a vegetable restaurant (selling fried veggies, stir-fried veggies, and steamed veggies), a salad restaurant (selling house salad, Caesar salad, and taco salad)? Of course you can't.

At Okabe, only open for lunch, a full-course tofu meal is just 700 yen. Only 14 people can squeeze in around the counter at one time. If you've been shopping, you'll have to learn how to balance the bags on top of your head while you eat because there is no space to put bags.

The place is so small, you'd expect there to be a sign with a Draemon cartoon character in front of the shop saying, "You must be this small to enter our restaurant."

It's a place you can walk into alone and not feel embarrassed as the proprietor shouts, "Hitori desu" and everyone turns to look at you. That's because everyone else is there alone too. No one wants to have to talk while eating at Okabe. You just want to concentrate on the flavor of the food and the marriage of the miso soup and rice, a marriage you know will never end in divorce.

In Okabe, you can flirt with your childhood. With your face enveloped in the warm steam of "miso" soup, it's enough to bring back memories of that special taste of your mother's miso soup she made when you were a kid, even if your mother is a "gaijin," who lives 20,000 km away and has never heard of miso soup.

Seven housewives work in the open kitchen behind the counter (two women solely to wash dishes). In the wintertime, it's like sitting around the campfire when you were a scout, while the troop leaders or den mothers served you hot food and drinks.

A lady who looks a lot like your best friend's mother, smiles at you as if she's known you since you were born and fries up tofu while you watch. Another woman, who looks a lot like your mother, serves you the fried tofu, which, with due geometric consideration, is always served in one oblong piece and two triangles.

Next, a piece of common tofu, the soft, silky stuff served with grated ginger, green onions and soy sauce. As it glides down my throat so comfortably, it reminds me of my hometown in Ohio, from where the soy beans used to produce the tofu were likely imported.

The soy beans that my parents see in the fields around their house every day, provide me 20,000 km away in Japan, with a taste of home.

So you see, I haven't left my country and my family completely. I still visit them at lunch time.

Visit the Japan Lite home page at www.amychavez.com or e-mail comments to: amychavez@mailexcite.com


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