“Maybe in a past life, you were Japanese,” Michiko suggests. The group I’m travelling with have been marvelling at how competently I wield my chopsticks, and my zest for Japanese food.
It’s as though they’ve never come across a Westerner that didn’t demand a knife and fork, or turn their nose up at a skewered sweet fish.
‘I just can’t believe it’s your first time in Japan,” she continues.
Ito snorts in approval as he spoons in another mouthful of steaming taro hotpot.
“You like Japanese food, eh?” he mumbles appreciatively as he plucks shreds of pork flesh from between his teeth.
I nod. Admittedly my love of Japanese food did start at an early age. As a child, I nibbled on rice balls dipped in soy sauce made for me by Tomoko – a Japanese student that looked after me while my mother was at work.
But I can’t claim to be a complete devotee.
At dinner, I wimp out in the face of octopus tentacles and a strangely unidentifiable crustacean.
Thank goodness there’s also oodles of buttery soft Yamagata beef and pink-tinged safflower noodles to gorge on, washed down with some warm sake.
More sake is sipped in Aizuwakamatsu, where we learn the process of brewing the potent rice wine in the town’s Sake Museum. In Sendai, I sample the local speciality of beef tongue, but I just can’t shake the textured chewiness. Rubbery sasakamaboko go down easier – bamboo leaf-shaped fishcakes. In Kyoto, I discover the joys of tofu skin in a variety of guises, washed down with chilled plum wine.
And everywhere, the sugary confections in a variety of pastel hues. Mochi balls, and multitudes of shapes moulded from bean paste keep my sweet tooth very happy indeed.