Header image for Fish & Chips
 

Yesterday, I finally took a day off. In order to ensure my off-ness I left my computer at home and threw a book in a bag and set a mark on a map some twelve kilometers or so from where I live to go and have lunch.

I wasn’t thinking of the walk as a hard walk, so I slipped on some Reef flip-flops (which are, as far as I can tell, the most comfy of all flip-flop style sandals, and now, after having put nearly thirty kilometers on them yesterday, I can say with confidence: they’re pretty dang comfy even at distance, though I wouldn’t want to repeat that distance in them again today) and set off.


Normally, this time of year, the beach is crammed full of makeshift restaurants called “umi no ie,” but because of COVID-19, they were canceled (along with fireworks), and so the beaches are just beaches — calm and without hammering and industrial machinery digging out space for sandy meals. I’m not sure many folks in town are clamoring for the return of those beach huts; most everyone I chat with is happy for the peace. Nobody seems to miss the drunken fights or the $15 pad thais.

The air was thick with humidity and a bit of fog, and children were playing in the sand in small, organized groups, running in and out of the haze, digging and throwing seaweed at each other and learning how to swim, looking like little troupes of penguins from afar, and other folks were set about cleaning up plastic and sea junk recently washed ashore from rainy season storms. There’s a collection of ramshackle fishing boats and huts at either end of the beach, and I’m always amazed by their presence. Tiny things, twenty footers with big lights and not much else onboard. The folks working them all seem so elderly, and it feels like — similar to kissa — this might be the last of the folks (at least on this beach) who set off in the early morning to snag whitebait or kelp, and then dry it in the sun on their little parcel of rented seafront.


I cut inland through residential neighborhoods and, as usual, was amazed by the variations in homes, and how zoning in Japan is fairly loose, and how that looseness creates a diversity that at times can feel almost like suburban blocks of an idealized city plopped into a coastal town — dry cleaners squashed between a million dollar single-family home and a two-story apartment complex with units renting for $500 a month. Next to that: an artisanal bakery, a fifty-year-long-running offset printer, a $200k pre-fab home, and a general goods store that looks plucked from the Taisho era.

My lunch goal was fish and chips in a small hipster village called Hayama. Think of it as if Hudson Valley, Mill Valley, and Venice Beach, in some unholy union, birthed a seaside village with Shinto shrines and, until two years ago, the world’s most beautifully located Denny’s. I ate little for breakfast and so perfectly battered and fried fish sounded like a damn fine lunch. Google Maps told me they were open until 3 p.m. That said — in towns like these nobody follows anything resembling a schedule. You learn to temper your expectations. Always assume the place will be closed, and be pleasantly surprised if it’s not.

So, when I rounded the corner at 2 p.m. (on the dot) to see customers leaving and the little universal lamp on the outside indicating PRESENTLY FUNCTIONING BUSINESS I was overjoyed. But as I approached and waved to the owner’s wife I noticed immediately that her face was without universal lamplight, was, indeed, darkened, ghoulish, bearing what I could only assume was news for the worst.

I’m so sorry, she said. We already called last order.

Now — let me make clear: This is no big business, no chain restaurant, it’s just a husband and wife frying fish by the ocean. So there was no upper manager calling the shots, keeping everyone in line on some militant schedule.

My heart sank. But … what time did you close?, I asked.

2 p.m.

I looked at my watch: 14:00:30. I was thirty seconds late.

The punctuality of Japanese trains is universally and rightfully lauded. The punctuality of calling last order, one could argue, deserves a bit more looseness.

Show me, good madame, the atomic clock by which your shop is run! I wanted to say.

I didn’t say that. Instead I let out a noise — Aaaaaaaarrrrr — just like that: aaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrgggg. Like a dying gorilla hit by a tractor trailer. That’s what it felt like. Thirty seconds. Thirty seconds too late. Aaaaaarrrrrggghhh. I was soaked with sweat. I was emotionally zeroed from having worked so much the last few months. The only thing on my mind for the last thirty minutes was some nasty-good fried food. Salt. Gimme salt. I must have looked insane.

Sorry, sorry, I said catching my breath, doubling over as if my appendix had burst. To further implore my plight, I added: I had just walked 90 minutes here and, wow, I was really looking forward to your amazing fish. Aaaaarrrrgggghh.

I’m so sorry, she said, but we already dumped out the oil.

Thirty seconds.

Arrrrghhhhhh.

Hold on, she said and hopped back in the shop.

I knew I was causing some muri — impossibility — by my very presence, by showing up thirty seconds too late, by groaning like a stab victim emerging from a sauna. But I also knew if I groaned in just the right way, with just the right edge of brokenness, projecting just the right amount of pathos, I could wangle the system. And not wangle it in a “oh you’re foreign and we’ll give you a pass” way, but in a: take-pity-on-me, this-stupid-sweaty-sack-of-meat way.

She emerged.

OK, we can still do a poki donburi — fresh caught fish, sliced like sashimi, steeped in soy sauce and slightly seared atop a bowl of rice.

YES! I’ll take it. Thank you thank you.

I sat at a table outside, too embarrassed by my involuntary (but successful) groaning to sit inside, and a few minutes later was presented with a beautiful bowl of seared fish. I took a bite and almost started crying. It was perfect. It was the best fish dish I had maybe ever eaten in my life. It was so rich in flavor and yet light in the belly that I had to stop chewing for a second and close my eyes and just focus on what majesty was transpiring inside my mouth. The searing char and salty soy sauce and just-caught natural flavor of the bite-sized cuts intermingling with sweet caramalized onions was divine. What a dolt I had been, wanting fish and chips. This — THIS — was what I should have wanted all along. This poki don. This was the true gem of this fish shop. The fried stuff was a decoy. A test. The truth lived in the poki and now I knew.

I finished it, felt healed, and the wife came out and apologized once again.

I told her this was the best thing I had ever eaten.

You should have called ahead, she said, we would have kept the oil on.

I told her I checked their times and thought they closed at 3 p.m.

Oh, no, she said. We close at 2 p.m. now because of COVID-19. Didn’t our website say that?

I told her I had checked Google Maps. A stupid beginner’s mistake on my part. But who knows which of the myriad websites and social media accounts holds the Actual Truth anymore. Still: she said they had submitted the changes to Google Maps but it still hadn’t taken.

So I told I could make those changes. My Google Maps mojo is beyond repute. Any edit you need, it can be done and live in mere seconds.

In between paying and waiting for my change I updated their Google Maps data, and true to my word, it was live before she handed me my change.


The rest of the day was largely uneventful. The clouds and haze broke and the sun was bright but not soul crushing as it can become in August. It felt life-giving. On little breaks in parks and cafes I read the entirety of Phillip Roth’s Everyman which is as beautiful and frustrating and heartbreaking as you’d imagine. I flip-flopped down picturesque stream-flanked back lanes as elementary school kids were let out of class, and watched them walk in zig-zaggy lines down the road and thought about how adults are so point-to-point specific and children try their hardest to stretch out their walks home, ducking into little nooks in the entryways of houses and stone walls, poking each other, tugging on tree branches, yelping with their little leather German backpacks bopping behind, all the while being without any explicit adult supervision, trusted to get home and trusted not to be messed with by anyone along the way. It’s as heartening a thing to witness as you’d imagine.

When I finally reached my own home, the GPS counter had ticked off nearly thirty kilometers and my legs felt well-used and I realized how much I longed for a true long walk — days and weeks of this. It’s when you start to pile the days atop each other that you get a little chemical symphony, a rising and amplification of delights from the feeling of having observed the world closely and used the body well.

More than that though, I realized I had been dumb and perhaps unkind to myself in recent months. Maybe we all have. I dropped the ball on cardio in June, and the effects of that had caught up to me.

So maybe head out for a disconnected walk if you haven’t done so recently? I woke up this morning feeling a glorious ache in the entire chain of muscles from my calves to my shoulders and the sense of having, finally, slept through the night.

More of this, less doomscrolling. And if you run a shop, go easy on that last call timing, please.

More next week,
C

p.s., Some shots of the spectacular concreted mountains from my walk yesterday.


Fellow Walkers

“‘I’ve moved house recently, from the coast to the country but I’ve rewalked every day for a decade. My old home was 400 hundred yards from an unloved and shingly, muddy, stretch of beach on a busy industrial sea-way and I used to tread the same steps, from south to north and back again; my footprints and my companion’s pawprints, washed away every time with every tide. Every beach is a borderland between solid ground and the fluid wilderness of the sea and no two days are the same, so no two walks are the same. Every walk a small but perfect communion between the edge of stability and something wildly unpredictable. Am I glamorizing the drab routine of walking the dog? Maybe. Now I live, surrounded by pasture and crop, up a farm track, half a mile from the nearest road. The old dog is too arthritic to come with me but each morning I’m up with the dawn, committed to a simple, meditative mile there and back. Every morning is different here too. The mew of buzzards and chuck-chuck of pheasants; the soft cropping of cows grazing; the mist inverted in the valley; an inky gibbous moon; beech nuts and leaves in the puddles. I miss the power of the whip of the sea and the tang of salt, but the communion is just as wonderful.”


(“Fellow Walkers” are short bios of the other folks subscribed to this newsletter. In Ridgeline 001 I asked: “What shell were you torn from?” and got hundreds of responses. We’re working our way through them over the year. You’re an amazing, diverse crew. Grateful to be walking with you all. Feel free to send one in if you haven’t already.)

 

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(A weekly letter on walking in Japan)