We decided to eat lunch at a restaurant yesterday, which was daring and ambitious - for two reasons.
First, we're still broke, and dinner in a sit-down, non-fast food restaurant in Japan means 1,500 yen a head, on average. It kills me, as I know I can produce a reasonable meal for much less myself. But we had no food in the house, and we wanted to do something other than get groceries with the nice weather on our day off.
Second, in the past, when we've decided to eat out, it has usually devolved into an argument on a street corner, people streaming by us, on what we would eat. This would usually end in crankiness on both ends and culminate with us staring at each other over Big Macs.
The problem? I'll eat anything, but I'm not blessed with a spouse who'll do the same. Although he's come a long way in the years we've been married, there are still lots of things that are a no-go for him, comestibles-wise.
Sushi, no. No fish at all. Noodles -boring. No onigiri, can't eat nori. Curry rice only acceptable with katsu on the side, and no more than once a month. Ramen and yakitori are okay, but yakitori is generally served in pubs that open at night. It was lunch. Ramen is a lunch food, so possibilities there, but it was a weekend, so most of the ramen-ya around the station were shut. I began to get cranky around the edges.
Fortunately, we were at Ofuna station, with a large department store. Before I came to Asia, if you said the words "dining at the Department store" to me, it would have conjured blurry memories of eating soggy french fries covered in packet gravy and ketchup at Sears. Now, of course, I know that the department store is the only place to go if you're looking for a decent meal at lunch.
A lot of helpful people will tell you that while in Japan, to save money, you go to department store basements to get food. I am not about to offer you this advice. This is crap advice. As a matter of fact, department store basements are fabulous places to buy food, including all sorts of amazing french pastries, sushi sets, yakitori sticks, korrokke, rich salads...you name it. They are, however, really shitty places to eat anything. If you buy something here, it'll be packed up most marvelously for you, chopsticks included, in a lovely plastic bag, which you are then expected to take home to eat. There is nowhere on the premises to eat this food. Don't try it for lunch, unless you like eating out of a plastic bag, furtively, standing in the corner of a stairwell by the exits. (It is a great option for something cheap at the end of the night, if you're going back to your hostel or hotel - a lot of it gets marked down as well. Just don't leave this trick for too late - everyone else is out there snapping up these deals as well, perhaps thinking of what they can stuff into the next day's bento. You'll be microwaving mayonnaise spaghetti at the 7/11 with the rest of us slowpokes.)
Department store roofs, on the other hand, are a great place to find reasonably priced sit-down lunch options. I say roof, but actually, I mean the top floor. Here we found six or seven potential places. It was lunch time, so they all had lines (Does anybody eat at home in Japan? I wonder.) There was shabu-shabu, sushi (*sigh), soba noodles, a western fusion place - lots of seafood pasta and sausages, don't ask me where they come up with these menus-, and a tonkatsu place. We agreed on the tonkatsu, and that's what we ate, and it was good. We even managed to negotiate the questions the server came up with, including the kind of rice we wanted with our set (mixed grain) and what ice we wanted for dessert (matcha ice cream for me; some obscure fruit sorbet for Mr. Fussy).
But all this fuss, and sighing, and rolling of eyes, and stomping about made me miss food courts. I'm not talking about the Manchu Wok and A&W kiosks of my youth, but of the fabulous range of fried rice, noodle, hotpot, hot plate, meat profusions of ...Korea. At the top of the department stores as well, but instead of sit-down restaurants, just small stalls, a large bank of plastic food displays, a giant sprawling mess of plastic chairs and a cold water machine in the middle. Go up to the cashier, tell her your number, and get a ticket. Wait for your number to some up, and go get your food.
The food was almost always crap, especially if you strayed beyond the Korean triumvirate of food-court mainstays - jjajangmyeon (black bean udon noodles); Kimchi Bokkumbap (kimchi fried rice) or Popeyes. Never, ever, order the tonkatsu at a Korean food court. Stay away from the Japanese food altogether, as a matter of fact. But I could almost always find a reasonable dolsot bibimbap, which is always good, even when it's bad. And Mr. Fussy could eat Popeyes, and we'd avoid the whole twenty minute meltdown. Occasionally, I'd get the sushi platter, and marvel at home much it would suck. I longed for better food.
If only I could marry the convenience and the choice of Korean food courts and the quality and deliciousness of Japanese department store lunch restos.
Then I'd have the hawker stalls of Singapore.