Saturday, April 17, 2010

Fukuoka Visa Run, Part 1: Seaside Sashimi

I just got back from a blissful two days in Fukuoka, which I decided to treat as a vacation instead of a perfunctory visa run. The air was still a little prickly, but the sun was out and the city was erupting in blossoms despite the fact that the peak cherry blossom period had passed. At the visa office on my first day, I picked up a map showing the city's major attractions, and I decided to walk to the Chuo Fresh Fish Market after I picked up my visa the following day. My friend Yuichiro looked skeptical when I told him about my planned walking trip, and it was certainly a lengthy trek, but I'm always up for those. I'd like to tell you how long it took, but I was staring at blossoms and taking pictures of mothers carting their kids in their bike baskets. Time didn't cross my mind, but I'd guess it's about an hour door to door if you subtract the lingering detours. It's also easy to take the subway to the Akasaka Station; from there, take the road next to the Starbucks down towards the sea and you'll run smack into it. I followed the map and it was really easy.

The building the restaurants are in is functional and nondescript, but the turquoise pillar says "fish market" on it.
Inside, there's a tiny store selling fresh fish and some fish-related products that were unidentifiable to me, and beyond that are several bleak hallways lined with small restaurants. Most of the restaurants have pictures or sample meals out in front, but I didn't see a single English word and I was intimidated by the thought of barging in and muddling my way through ordering. I walked past the busiest one, which had a small line stretching outside, several times. I paced the hallway and worked up the courage to enter, half hoping that someone would yell, "Come on in! You're welcome here!" That never happened, so I decided to return a little later, when I hoped it would be less busy and there wouldn't be so many witnesses to my ignorance.
I returned at 1:40, which was fortuitous because it turned out that my chosen restaurant closed for lunch at two. The hallways of the market, like its exterior, felt like a government office building, but upon stepping through the slatted doorway, I found myself in a warm and elegant little sushi bar. As I'd hoped, the crowd had dwindled. When my waiter came over, I recognized that he asked me if I spoke Japanese, and I told him I didn't, which was one of three phrases I'd been able to memorize before leaving Korea (along with "I'll take this one, please" and "this is delicious"). He tentatively began speaking to me in English, and he was pretty good. Most importantly, his friendly demeanor put me at ease and I did my best to communicate that I was embarrassed about not speaking any Japanese, but I just had to try fresh fish while I was in Fukuoka. I also blurted "Arigato gozai mas!" over and over again. Maybe that counts as a fourth phrase? He told me his name was Hedecki and let me take a picture of him.

However, he wasn't able to communicate much about the menu, so I pointed dumbly at what I recognized as sashimi. "Sashimi?" Hedecki asked, and I realized I could have used the actual word.
I'm actually not a big sashimi fan, but since I was in the country where it originated and I was at a fresh fish market, I figured I'd better try it. Also, Hedecki told me that the cooked fish I originally tried to order had lots of bones and would be difficult to eat. Without a translated menu or any familiarity with sashimi, I can't tell you what I ate, but I can tell you that it was a revelation and I was so glad that I'd been directed away from my original order. The white fish on the right (sorry I don't have a better picture) was so smooth and rich that it was scarcely recognizable as fish to my provincial palate. All of the fish was silky and cold and easily gave way between my teeth. What's more, my small feast was only 1000 Yen (about ten dollars). The soup was a non-event, but the dressing on the salad had a delicious zip to it and the mushrooms (in the dish on the left) were lightly seasoned and flavorful.
I started to feel that warm buzz that fresh, high quality food always provides, and then I added to it with some Asahi and friendly conversation with Hedecki. I left the restaurant feeling perfectly content and temporarily invincible.

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