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Saturday, Jan. 17, 2004

JAPAN LITE

Restaurant's food still alive and kicking


Recently, I went to Manabe Island, in Okayama Prefecture, two islands away from mine. The island has a population of 400 and only one restaurant. But the restaurant, called Ryouka, is so famous, you need reservations to get in for lunch on weekends. Meals are 5,000 yen per person, and the favored transportation to the restaurant is by private boat.

After docking our yacht in Manabe port, my three Japanese friends and I approached the restaurant, where the waitress was outside scooping live shrimp into a large, shallow lacquerware bowl. A rather fancy way to transport shrimp to the grill, eh? We were ushered into the restaurant, past the pool of live fish in the center of the room, and up the stairs to a private tatami-mat room.

Shortly after, the waitress came in with another large, shallow lacquerware bowl. Wait a minute, that's not another -- it's the same large, shallow lacquerware bowl with the same live shrimp in it! She placed the bowl in the center of the table. The shrimp were on their sides paddling their legs furiously in the low water. "What the heck are we supposed to do with these?" I thought, looking around for a hibachi. Silly me. We were supposed to eat them -- while they were still alive and kicking!

Without hesitation, one friend grabbed a shrimp, deftly pried off the head between his thumbs, pulled off the legs and tail with his other hand, and popped the body into his mouth. "Oishii!" he yelled, which prompted another person to do the same, although it took him a few tries to keep the wiggly thing in his hands while decapitating it.

Everyone looked at me. "Aren't you going to try it?" I tentatively reached into the bowl and picked up a shrimp, but when it started squirming, I screamed and dropped it. "Um, I'll pass," I said, as another shrimp suddenly jumped out of the bowl, did a full mobius and landed on the tatami mat, sending everyone scrambling to retrieve it.

Then came shrimp tempura. Kind of like a before and after episode. I ate the fried shrimp while the live ones continued doing acrobatics in the bowl in front of us. If someone had laid a chopstick over the bowl, it would have been like the high jump at the Crustacean Olympics.

Then came the octopus, live and waving its legs from the bowl. The legs were cut up into small pieces, about 5 cm long, but each had a life of its own. My two Japanese friends dived into the bowl of legs with their chopsticks, yelling "Oishii!"

Everyone looked at me again. "Aren't you going to try it?" I looked at the octopus for a while. After all, it had no eyes, head or tail, and only one leg. I clenched a piece of leg as it writhed between my chopsticks. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and shoved it into my mouth, concentrating on only one thing: chewing it to death.

But what happened next, I was completely unprepared for: the leg adhered itself to the inside of my mouth! I tried to spit it out, but the octopus held on tightly to my cheek through the tiny suction cups on its legs. All I could do was chew. And chew. And chew. Down to the last suction cup. Finally, I was able to swallow the pulp.

When the sashimi came, I couldn't help but think -- man, that cook is lazy!

The fish was staked out with the head and tail still intact, and the flesh sitting next to it on top of shredded radish. But soon, the waitress came in and took the head and tail. It showed up later in the soup.

When we left the restaurant I was still hungry, but not at all dissatisfied with my performance as a "gaijin." Because, you see, the third Japanese friend who entered the restaurant with us -- a big, burly guy -- hadn't been able to eat a thing!

E-mail: amychavez2000@yahoo.com Web site: www.amychavez.com


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