Already turned away from the first restaurant with forearms tapping together in an ‘x’ across their chest, six of us tentatively enter the next restaurant. Relieved, we are welcomed by an old man, grinning with “irashai” (welcome), and waved to a table.
“Konichiwa,” we respond timidly, followed by half-bows and “Arigatō gozaimasu.”
A few of us actually mispronounce the formal thank you as “Arigatō Gomen’nasai,” meaning “thank you-I’m sorry,” jumbling phrases from our cramming session. The error likely seemed appropriate as he watched us fumble through the door as awkwardly as we did our Japanese words.
Yanking our boots off, we struggle to get seated on the tatami mats and pull a flat pillow under each bottom. Our folded legs overlap. Laughing, we order “bīru” even before the last of us is settled.
The old man brings sheets of laminated paper covered in Japanese characters. He speaks to us in Japanese, but even if we could understand, we barely pay attention as we scour the menus for morsels of English. Finding none, we look up at the old man apologetically.
“English? Eigo?” one of us faintly asks. He shakes his head but points to a picture menu. We hadn’t realized we had entered a sushi restaurant. We were familiar with western-appropriated sushi; California rolls, spicy tuna rolls, maki rolls stuffed with avocado and cream cheese to camouflage how the fish got to a landlocked locale anyway. The fish is fresher here, but the Japanese version of sushi is ironically adopted too, from Southeastern Asia, and no doubt suffered similar 19th-century scrutiny (raw, unfermented fish? How uncouth). But the menu showed no rolls with cute names poorly describing what is actually rolled up in seaweed. The pictures were all nigiri sushi. Nigiri sushi, raw fish on seasoned rice; simple and honest. Intimidating.
The old man returns with the same encouraging smile. We timidly point to the yellowfin and the fatty tuna and are soon entranced. The fish tastes like thick, cold meat instantly falling apart on our tongues. We get braver, each choice more fearless. We savor salmon, mackerel, amberjack, bonito, and eel. All too soon, it’s closing time, only 45 minutes later. Our fishy paradise is cut off and we share the remaining velvety pieces. As we reverse our uncoordinated entrance, both the old man and we are satisfied and respectful of each other for our perseverance. We bow and thank him in both English and Japanese “thank you-I’m sorries” until the door closes behind us.
*This is the story I entered into the World Nomads 2017 Writing Scholarship Competition.