"Throw another shrimp in the nabe . . ."

24Jan06

On the eleventh of January I met up with Yo-chan, Onaka-san, Akita-san, and Suganuma-san for a shinenkai nabe party. Shinenkai is a party to start the new year, and so I started this new year with four friends united by photography. Yo-chan runs a small film developing shop at the west gate of Ishibashi station, and Onaka, Akita, and Suganuma are all members of the Osaka Daigaku photography club. We met in front of Yoichi’s shop and then walked through the narrow maze of Ishibashi’s alleyway restaurant district until we reached a two-story nabe-ya. We were seated upstairs in a small private room right next to a room that was filled with loud, drunk college girls who were continuously breaking out in hilarious laughter. This lent the event the proper air of festivity. For dinner we ordered goma nabe, or sesame-based nabe. “Nabe” is essentially the Japanese word for “pot,” and nabe is essentially the Japanese version of hotpot — you get a pot at the table with a burner below to keep it at a boil, and then a pile of ingredients which you cook in the nabe. The fresh sesame comes served in a mortar-and-pestle and is hand ground and then put into individual bowls to mix with a bit of tamari and whatever you might feel like pulling from the nabe. Our nabe order was a veritable cornucopia and came with tons of vegetables, plenty of meat (beef, chicken, and pork), some tofu, five shrimp, and udon for the end of the meal. In the middle of the meal I noticed a strange shrimp-movement out of the corner of my eye, at which point I realized that our shrimp were still alive. After I pointed this out to Onaka-san we had a small discussion about putting the shrimp into the nabe: “Kanashii desu.” “Kanashii, demo . . . oishii.” (“It’s sad.” “Sad, but . . . delicious.”) And indeed, the shrimp were some of the most delicious I’ve ever eaten.

There’s a strong communal aspect to many types of Japanese eating — at yaki-niku restaurants (which are essentially a knock-off of Korean BBQ) you sit around a fire roasting skewers of meat together. And at a nabe restaurant you sit around a hotpot, essentially cooking together as you eat together. There’s something special about laboring around a meal together, whether it’s in a kitchen, around a fire-pit, or around a nabe. Something about the gustatory pleasure of this kind of work really strikes deep in people. I think it’s a sense of “I’m sensing what you’re sensing, and this puts us in a commonality.” Indeed, Yo-chan kept repeating a phrase that must be a translation of some sort of Japanese adage related to communal eating: “Let’s sit around a nabe together.” In a way we were all sitting around a cultural nabe as well, though this didn’t become clear until a bit later. It turns out that Onaka, Akita, and Suganuma (who is a tabla player) all like the same type of avant-jazz, art rock, punk rock, and experimental improvisational music that I do, so undoubtedly we’ll be going to see some live music together. (In fact, tomorrow I’ll be meeting Akita-san at The Bridge to see members of Acid Mothers Temple and Ruins play together in four different configurations.)

After the nabe, we walked over to a small, local bar — Café Bun-bun — that serves various types of European beer, including a huge variety of Belgian ales (as well as my favoritely named beer, the Gulden Draak). I can’t remember what I ordered, but Onaka-san ordered a Canadian beer called La Fin du Monde (“The End of the World”), which somehow struck the right note for the end of the evening.

Onaka-san inspects the nabe ingredients. Hey, that’s not American beef is it?

Yo-chan prepares to eat. “Itadakimasu!”

Akita-san and Suganuma-san have a laugh at the shrimp’s expense.

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