TOKYO – When I’m on vacation, I almost always lose a little weight. This is a) because I am constantly in motion, and b) because I become obsessed with only eating foods that are special. When I’m home, I might eat a box of stale donuts because they are there. But in Japan, I will only eat something if it’s authentically Japanese or otherwise rare and extravagant and worthy of being consumed on my special trip halfway across the globe.
All of the above explains why I had refused to eat anything between breakfast and 2:30 in the afternoon, despite being really, really hungry. I was saving my lunch for Asakusa Imahan, the restaurant that Lonely Planet recommended on its Asakusa walking tour. Asakusa Imahan is a small, upscale Japanese chain that specializes in shabu-shabu. The phrase “shabu-shabu” is onomatopoetic for the sound that beef makes when you swirl it around a bowl of broth. Here’s how shabu-shabu works: You put a big steaming bowl of broth in the center of a table and assemble bowls of beef, veggies, sauce, what-have-you to the side. You cook the beef by swirling it for a few seconds and then you nom, nom, nom it. It’s delicious, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. At this point in the story, I had not shabu-shabued yet.
There are two branches of Asakusa Imahan. I went to the bigger one on Kokusai Street. It was pretty easy to find, and I don’t have any hilarious getting-lost stories. On the way, I found a seedy-looking Thai restaurant that was using MY NAME for its title. I did not appreciate this and thought about suing, but decided to reconsider until after lunch.
When I arrived at the restaurant, I managed to indicate that I was looking for shabu-shabu for one. I say “managed” because for most of my time at the restaurant, I did everything wrong. You could totally tell that I had never shabu-shabued before.
The waitresses were very polite, spoke excellent English, and did not laugh at my errors. I was impressed, because I usually spoke Japanese wherever I went, and typically found my Japanese to be better than the English of the person to whom I was speaking. Not at Asakusa Imahan. I don’t know if the waitresses were fluent in English — or just experienced in explaining the way of the shabu-shabu to foreigners.
The first thing I did wrong was try to enter the restaurant. The waitresses asked me to take my shoes off first. I did and noticed rows of pretty wooden sandals by the entrance. These didn’t look like shoes you would wear on the street, so I thought I was meant to put them on to walk around the restaurant. The outraged (yet very polite) shriek that came from the waitresses indicated to me that I was not meant to wear these shoes. Word to the wise: When you see strange pairs of shoes in a restaurant, ask before trying them on.